Category: Uncategorized

Jamaican nightlife

In Kingston you'll be spoilt for choice for vinyl-touting DJs. Image by Christopher Pillitz / Image Bank / Getty
Kingston DJ (Image by Christopher Pilitz / Image Bank / Getty)

Lonely Planet asked me to write about nightlife in Jamaica for their website. Most tourists concentrate their visits around Montego Bay, but I really wanted to take the chance to sing the praises of Kingston. It receives far too few visitors, but really is the cultural heart of the country, and there’s great music to find any night of the week, from live bands to fantastic street parties:

What Kingston is really famous for is its sound systems: giant speaker stacks with a ‘selector’ (DJ) playing the tunes and a ‘toaster’ acting as MC to the proceedings. Part block-party, part fashion show and all-out stereo war, sound-system parties are an essential Jamaican experience. They start late in the night and go on into the early morning so you’ll need to pace yourself – don’t even think of turning up before midnight.

For me, the real gem is Kingston Dub Club, up on the skyline above the city. It’s a great scene with locals of all stripes, elder Rastas, Japanese reggae enthusiasts, Red Stripe and rum, and DJs playing sublime dub on a set of decks under a huge mango tree. You can find some Soundcloud mixtapes here.

If that whets your appetite, you can read my full article on the Lonely Planet website.


Sources and Methods interview

Paul Clammer

I listen to a lot of podcasts. One I’ve been enjoying a lot recently is Sources and Methods, a podcast describing itself as a show where ‘interesting people doing interesting things get to talk about the what, how and why of what they do.’

I’ve known one of the hosts, Alex Strick, for a number of years – he helped out with the Pashto phrasebook section of my Lonely Planet Afghanistan guidebook – and was thrilled when he asked if I would be interviewed for the podcast. In the resulting hour-long discussion we range from the mechanics of researching travel guides, the nature of writing about countries where visitors are more likely to be NGO workers than tourists, and the challenges and opportunities for guidebooks in a digital landscape where everyone can upload a hotel review to TripAdvisor, and expect to get the resulting travel information for free.

I also got to play a mini-round of Desert Island Discs, picking a book, a film and a song to recommend – the hardest aspect of the entire interview!

You can listen to the podcast here (where you can also read the accompanying show notes), or via iTunes or Stitcher.


Haiti’s Tourist Hype

Gingerbread house in Port-au-Prince (Image by Viran De Silva, via Lonely Planet)
Gingerbread house in Port-au-Prince (Image by Viran De Silva, via Lonely Planet)

January 12 2015 was the fifth anniversary of Haiti’s earthquake. The anniversary is usually the prompt for a slew of articles about the failures of reconstruction, and press releases from NGOs explaining that while there have certainly been plenty of problems, the work they’ve personally done has been great. But this year, there has been a new theme: the rise of Haitian tourism.

Lonely Planet (for whom I coordinated two editions of the sadly-missed Dominican Republic & Haiti guide) asked me to weigh in on the subject in an article for their website:

Say ‘Haiti’ and most people’s first response isn’t likely to be ‘holiday destination’. From political troubles to natural disasters, recent decades haven’t been kind to this Caribbean nation. Five years on from the devastating earthquake that shook Haiti to its foundations, the country is still rocked by an ongoing political crisis and struggling to haul itself out of the rubble. But there’s a change in the air, and Haiti is loudly proclaiming itself ready to welcome tourists back to its shores. Visitor numbers are up and the word is out: Haiti is, supposedly, the hot new travel destination for 2015. We ask if Haiti is really ready for tourists.

You can read my full article here. Spoiler alert: Yes, Haiti is ready (but terms and conditions apply).

It’s been hard to keep up with all the coverage that Haitian tourism is getting right now. When I started writing my Bradt Haiti guidebook , there were occasional speculative pieces about whether tourism could really return, (this piece from 2012 is a typical example), but the long PR game that the ministry of tourism has been playing does seem to be paying off, as the stories have not only multiplied, but crossed over from the foreign news and business pages to the travel media proper. Haiti has hit the top travel destinations for 2015 in the Independent, the Guardian, Rough Guides, Travel+Leisure, Wanderlust and the Travel Channel. It’s been a long time since the country has such overwhelmingly positive press. Tourist arrivals seem to be rising accordingly.

Several articles have caught my eye in the past week. The Huffington Post published a big piece extolling the virtues of Haiti as a family destination. The writing is a bit breathless, but it has the genial tone of someone collaring you because they can’t stop talking about their great vacation. It’s a big contrast to the editor of Yahoo Travel who went to Haiti on a press trip and spent the entire time scared of whether her hotel door would lock, worrying about the food, and jumping at the ‘hostile’ locals. One gets the sense that Disneyland would have been a destination too far for this nervy writer (the same press trip also generated this far cheerier ‘Top 5 Experiences in Haiti” advertorial on the G Adventures website).

Forbes published a useful three part series on Port-au-Prince (here, here and here). There’s a strong focus on Port-au-Prince’s fancy new hotels here – for balance, read them alongside Emily Troutman’s interviews with the hotels’ Haitian staff. The article’s headline feels deliberatively provocative, but the interviews themselves are a model of empathy. Finally, the New Yorker takes a look at the complicated and much-overlooked issue of land-ownership in Haiti. While this might not seem directly tourism related, it covers directly touches on the proposed Carnival cruise port on La Tortue, and the controversial eco-tourism resort project on Île-à-Vache, shedding some light on why these projects can look great on paper but often run into big difficulties during implementation.

Of course, it’s rather unfortunate that all this coverage arrived just as Haiti was entering a period of political uncertainty, with the dissolution of parliament and President Martelly ruling by decree (in the consensus cabinet announced this week, the high-flying Stephanie Villedrouin was reconfirmed as Minister for Tourism). But for the travel press at least, Haiti’s moment does seem to have arrived. The challenge ahead is to follow through on the promise so that we can really say Haiti ap dekole: Haiti is taking off.

In the meantime, did I mention I wrote a guidebook to Haiti…?

Traveller’s Guide: Jamaica

Traveller's Guide to Jamaica (Paul Clammer, Independent)
Traveller’s Guide to Jamaica (The Independent)

The new edition of Lonely Planet’s Jamaica hit the shelves last month, and I’m proud to be its lead author. It’s a fantastically interesting country to travel in, with multitudes to explore beyond the paradise clichés of the all-inclusive resorts. I’ve just written a mini-guide to the country for The Independent, which includes everything my favourite Kingston sound-systems to the island’s best festivals and food experiences. I was particularly pleased to sing the praises of the capital, which is often unfairly maligned as a travel destination:

Kingston has frequently been regarded as the sort of place you would arrange your trip to avoid, but these days the city is very much on the way up, brandishing a rich cultural life that is tempting travellers back through fine dining and local festivals.

The music scene is extraordinarily vibrant and a real eye – and ear – opener for anyone who thinks Jamaican music begins and ends with Bob Marley. From live jazz and roots poetry to raucous dancehall street parties, Kingston lays it on with the knowing self-confidence that is the country’s stock-in-trade.

You can read the full article here. The Lonely Planet guide to Jamaica is available here.

Lonely Planet Jamaica (2014)

A Haitian trio

Recognition for the Bradt Guide to Haiti from the Haitian Ministry of Tourism
Recognition for the Bradt Guide to Haiti from the Haitian Ministry of Tourism

A little over a month ago I was in London at an adventure tourism promotion event at the Haitian embassy in London. I was rather touched to be called up to be presented with an ‘award’ for services to Haitian tourism by the Minister for Tourism Stephanie Villedrouin. But I was even more pleased to see so many tour operators present, many of whom have started to sell trips to the country. While I was writing the book, there was a regular stream of articles in the mainstream press about how Haiti was going to be the next big thing in tourism, but these only ever appeared in the business pages, rather than the travel sections of the papers. At last, the green shoots of an industry that appeared to have died a death some time in the mid-1980s finally seem to be putting in an appearance.

Here are three articles about Haiti I’ve been asked to write recently. The first is for Lonely Planet, about how travellers can experience Vodou:

Just saying the word ‘vodou’ brings forth a tumble of clichés, from the comedy witch doctors of the Bond movie Live and Let Die to Hollywood’s endlessly shuffling fascination with zombies. Lurid fears have been stoked about these religions since the time when Haiti’s slaves had the temerity to free themselves from Napoleon’s rule and set up the world’s first black republic two centuries ago, with propagandists and pulp novelists dining out on stories of cannibalism and possession by jungle drums ever after.

Vodou celebrants at Fet Gede
Vodou celebrants at Fet Gede

You can read the full article here.

The other two articles are for G Adventures, who have a new tour to Haiti. The first tackles Haiti’s greatest sight, the magnificent Citadelle:

How many times have tourist boards sold a half-baked destination as the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World?’ Sometimes however, the real deal is tucked away in some long-forgotten corner, waiting for discovery. As Haiti makes tentative steps to reintroduce itself to the travel market, it carries a pretty impressive trump card in the shape of the magnificent Citadelle le Ferrière.

The view from the Citadelle
The view from the Citadelle

The complete piece can be found here. The second piece is about the delights of Jacmel on the south coast:

Of all the countries in the Caribbean, Haiti has perhaps the richest visual arts tradition. Even the local buses (known as taptaps) are often pimped and decorated to the point where they resemble art galleries on wheels. But nowhere in the country is the artistic tradition than in Jacmel, a few hours’ drive south over the mountains from Port-au-Prince.

Wall mosaic in Jacmel
Wall mosaic in Jacmel

Read the full Jacmel piece here.


A year of travel in Nigeria

Naija's finest – Wings magazineI was thrilled to be asked to write the cover article for the current issue of Wings, the in-flight magazine of Arik Air.

Nigeria isn’t written about much as a tourist destination, but it’s a fascinating place, and for my money, Lagos is one of the most exciting cities on earth. Although I’ve covered the country twice for Lonely Planet’s West Africa guide, I wasn’t able to do it for the 2013 edition, so I’m pleased to get the opportunity to sing its praises here.

You can read the full article on the Wings website here, but the e-viewer version here is worth looking at to see how the article looks laid out with the beautiful accompanying photos by George Osodi.

Shopping and eating on Amman’s Rainbow Street

Rainbow Street articleI’m currently based in Amman, Jordan, and living downtown in the Rainbow Street area. Here’s a recent piece I wrote about the best shopping and eating options around Rainbow Street, for the October/November issue of J Magazine, the inflight magazine of Jazeera Airways.

The complete article can be be here.

A 19th century emigrant’s guidebook to Haiti

The ‘Geffrard’ map of Haiti, from A Guide to Hayti by James Redpath (1861)
The ‘Geffrard’ map of Haiti, from A Guide to Hayti by James Redpath (1860)

In previous blogposts, I’ve looked at how how travel guidebooks to Haiti have reflected the concerns of the day, from the US occupation of Haiti in the early 20th century to the tourist boom of the 1980s. In the final entry in this mini-series, we can go back to the infancy of the guidebook itself and find Haiti there at the very beginning, giving a very different account of itself to the ones we’ve looked at so far.

The travel guidebook is a relatively young publishing phenomenon. Although guides were produced for the 18th century Grand Tour of Europe, it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that companies like Thomas Cook started producing what were recognizably the first ‘package tours’ that the genre took off. The debut Baedeker guide in English – traditionally thought of as the first recognizably modern travel guidebook series – was published in 1861. Amazingly, its appearance was beaten by a year by the first printed guide to Haiti, although its target market was rather different to those seeking the sites of Classical Europe.

A Guide to Hayti was published by James Redpath in 1860 under the auspices of the Haytian Bureau of Emigration in Boston. Despite being independent for over half a century, Haiti remained unrecognised by the USA, which was fearful of the powerful draw the country held over both free and enslaved African-Americans. Haiti was similarly aware of its beacon status, and its government had already made attempts to encourage emigration. A movement in the 1820s sponsored by President Jean-Pierre Boyer had already seen around 13,000 African-Americans settle in the republic.

In 1859, Fabré Geffrard became president of Haiti, having overthrown Emperor Faustin Soulouque in a coup, and began to revisit plans to encourage emigration to Haiti. He enlisted the help of the Scottish-American abolitionist James Redpath, who was encouraged to set up an office of the new Haytian Bureau of Emigration. Land was given over in the Artibonite Valley for settlers, and a budget of $20,000 set for the enterprise. A key part of this was the production of a written guide to encourage potential emigrants.

Redpath sets out his stall in the book’s introduction with a polemic designed to get the blood racing:

There is only one country in the Western World where the Black and the man of color are undisputed lords; where the White is indebted for the liberty to live to the race which with us is enslaved; where neither laws, nor prejudices, nor historical memories, press on persons of African descent; where the people whom America degrades and drives from her are rulers, judges and generals; men of extended commercial relations, authors, artists and legislators; where the insolent question, so often asked with us, “What would become of the Negro if Slavery were abolished?’ is answered by the fact of an independent Nationality of immovable stability, and a Government inspired with the spirit of progress. The name of this country is HAYTI.

Much of the book continues in this inspirational tone. The history of the island – and especially the revolution – is cast in the most valiant light possible. The chapters on geography are an insight into a green island with ‘exhaustless forests’ now largely lost to modern deforestation, but a lush one that would surely have enticed those looking to cultivate their own land as free men (certain passages still hold true today: ‘Cockroaches and ants are the greatest threat to housekeepers; they eat clothing and books with an extraordinary gluttony’). All information is tailored to the potential settler – the best land and soil types for certain crops, the best climate for particular livestock, even the relative abundance of different wood for the cabinet-maker seeking a new life.

Everything in the book contrives to paint a very seductive portrait of country, and the text regularly reminds African-American readers that Haiti is a beacon of liberty in comparison to its northern neighbour. ‘Men of our race, dispersed in the United States!’ booms the Haitian Secretary of State FE Dubois in a separate essay. ‘The doors of Hayti are open to you.’

A Guide to Hayti by James Redpath (1861)
A Guide to Hayti by James Redpath (1860)

In truth, Redpath is more interested in this hard sell than providing detailed travel information to his potential emigrants. Writing with the sigh of a guidebook writer who has returned from an exciting research trip but is dismayed by the pile of notes that demand to be written up, he concludes:

It is neither possible nor desirable to put in to a Guide Book … all that emigrants will ask. Hence, in this volume, the reader will find the essential facts only; for further information, he must apply, personally or by letter, to the office in Boston, where certified copies of the Governmental guarantees, the journals of Hayti, books of reference, maps, specimens of the ores, and of the staple cultures of the Island, will be found.

As a result, the chapter ‘How to go, and what to take to Hayti’ merely takes up a brisk three pages. (It’s instructive to compare the guide with The Prairie Traveler, an exhaustive manual for wagon trains on the Oregon Trail published a year later). Redpath essentially instructs emigrants to bring everything they think they might need, from clothing (‘take as many summer suits as you can afford to buy’) and tools (‘every family ought to have a saw, hammer, and nails’), to reading material (‘English books can seldom be had for love or money’) and livestock. About the only thing that seems to be available to purchase in Haiti is cane furniture.

The Haytian Bureau of Emigration – which also opened offices in New York and New Orleans – succeeded in bringing over 2000 emigrants to Haiti. Of those who made the journey, the most celebrated emigrant was the church minister Joseph Theodore Holly, a noted evangelist for Haiti as a home for African-Americans. Holly helped found the Episcopal Church in Haiti, and was its first bishop. Thirty years after arriving in Haiti, he oversaw the construction the Sainte Trinité Cathedral, which become famed for its extraordinary Biblical murals by the masters of Haitian art, and later reduced to rubble during the 2010 earthquake.

The success of the Guide to Hayti was relatively short-lived. In June 1862, just over a year into the American Civil War, the United States finally gave diplomatic recognition to Haiti. Six months later, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, explicitly shifting the war aims of the Union and making abolition inevitable. The staunchest supporters of emigration now shifted their efforts inwards; Redpath himself left the Bureau to become a war correspondent.

In the second half of the 20th century, Haiti became known as a net exporter of people rather than a destination for emigrants. But with a neat irony, the Haitian tourism industry today is putting its biggest efforts into attracting the Haitian-American Diaspora back to the country for their vacations. Visitors today, however, are encouraged to bring their swimsuits rather than hammers and nails.

You can find the complete text of A Guide to Hayti online at the Digital Library of the Caribbean.

Travel guidebooks during the US occupation of Haiti

View of Champs de Mars, Port-au-Prince, taken from Livre bleu d'Haïti (1919)
View of Champs de Mars, Port-au-Prince, taken from The Blue Book of Hayti (1920)

For almost a century after its independence in 1804, Haiti sat largely apart from the international mainstream, little-visited and ostracised by many. When it made headlines at all, it was as the recipient of the crudest form of gunboat diplomacy, when a naval cruiser from one of the major European powers or America would threaten to shell Port-au-Prince unless reparations were paid for some imagined slight against one of its nationals. On July 28 1915, all this was to change. The USS Washington weighed anchor in Port-au-Prince harbour and disgorged several hundred marines, who quickly took control of strategic locations.

For the next 20 years, thousands more Americans followed their army to Haiti – businessmen, missionaries and even the occasional tourists. And they all needed help when they got there. In short, they needed a travel guide. In a previous blog I talked about what the Haitian guidebooks of the 1980s could tell us about contemporary attitudes to the country, and it’s instructive to look at what literature was available for the many Americans heading to Haiti during the occupation. Of these, the most important was the bilingual Livre bleu d’Haïti (The Blue Book of Hayti), produced in 1920 under the auspices of the Haitian government.

The Americans were ostensibly in Haiti to provide stability to the country, and counter German influence in the Caribbean during a time of world war. However, the occupation also brought with it the opportunity to remake Haiti in America’s image. Having taken control of the banks, customs houses and the presidency, a new constitution (drafted by Franklin D Roosevelt) was forced through parliament allowing foreigners to own land for the first time since independence. Haiti was now a land of opportunity. The introduction to the The Blue Book of Hayti states the case very clearly:

Haiti is a very interesting country and if proper propaganda would make it rightly known to the outside world, most certainly its good and healthy climate would attract a great number of tourists which would render inevitable the construction of comfortable and large hotels [and] central parks which in time would bring the desired progress to the country. The Haitian soil, which has never been cultivated, contains immense wealth and would guarantee the development of industrial and commercial enterprises, and the main desire of the country is to interest foreign and especially American capitalists to invest in the exploitation of Haitian soil, mines and woods, which would certainly prove to be one of the best investments in the world.

The Blue Book of Hayti is a 260-page gazetteer to the country. There are sections on history, geography and the like, but what’s really important to its readers is making money and getting on in society. So, there are pages dedicated to customs warehouses, import businesses and municipal works, interspersed with biographies of the well-to-do Haitians you might meet or (possibly) receive a dining invitation from. With luck, you might run into the ‘genial and sympathetic personality’ of George Baussan, architect of the Palais National, or president-to-be Louis Borno (‘kindly of manner and benevolent of heart’). Photographic portraits are even provided for identification, and are particularly revealing – the leading Haitians are all pale skinned, the officers of the newly-reconstituted armed forces are American to a man, and women are represented in a peculiar seven-page spread entitled ‘Beauties of Hayti – Popularity Contest.’

Business and pleasure in Port-au-Prince, courtesy of The Blue Book of Hayti (1920)
Business and pleasure in Port-au-Prince, courtesy of The Blue Book of Hayti (1920)

It’s just possible that the visitor to Haiti is interested in seeing the country as much as making money from it. This was the earliest era of international cruising, and publishers were scrambling to produce guides to the new recreational travellers. The famous The South American Handbook, (updated annually and now in its 90th edition) dates from this period, while Haiti makes an appearance as part of a cruise itinerary in Frederick Albion’s A Guide to the West Indies, Bermuda and Panama (1920).

Much as many Caribbean guidebooks today still give Haiti the widest of berths, you get the sense that Albion could hardly bring himself to disembark when his ship arrived in Cap-Haïtien. ‘Let it be understood,’ he writes of anyone planning a trip to Haiti, ‘that he does it solely upon his own responsibility.’ The change of tone from the rest of the book is jarring. Elsewhere, Bermuda is described in painterly colours, Havana offers the visitor beautiful views and graceful ladies wearing mantillas, while readers are charmed by Jamaica’s English-style villages complete with boys playing cricket. As for Port-au-Prince, the visitor is ‘advised not to plan to linger in this city, unless certain of a welcome from the American colony which now numbers several hundred members.’

Those readers who forgot to pack their copy of The Blue Book of Haiti and it’s spotter’s guide to Haitian society would have found a welcome from the various social and sports clubs set up by the Americans. The Pétionville Club (which found unfortunate fame after the 2010 earthquake when its golf course became home to a large tent camp run by Sean Penn’s aid outfit JP/HRO) was established during the US occupation. Female travellers could join The Colony Club of Haiti, set up in 1924 by the wives of US Marines officers.

In contrast with the guidebooks of today, which sell themselves through offering as many chances for readers to experience countries as locals do, Albion wants to insulate as far as possible readers from accidentally encountering Haiti as it actually existed for Haitians. Take public transport for example:

The [buses] are ramshackle affairs and their seats hardly inviting. Get advice from a resident of your own class as to both carriage and motor service … There are perhaps 100 miles of so-called rail-roads in Haiti. Trains run at less than bicycle speed and, for that and other reasons, are seldom patronized by whites.

Likewise, those wishing to experience the wider country don’t find much encouragement:

[Jacmel] offers nothing startling beyond the fact that it claims 6,000 Baptists. There are no special attractions here for the traveller, as one may pursue his investigations of people and resources at better advantage in the capital, or at the Cape. The streets are no cleaner than they should be, and the hotels are, frankly, Haitian.

Ironically, those Americans who did manage to travel more widely in Haiti would probably ended up finding favour with the guidebook’s author. The US occupation prompted a mini-boom in travelogues and memoirs about Haiti visitors, all intent on appropriating its cultural capital. Books like William Seagrove’s Magic Island (and its spin-off Hollywood movie White Zombie) sold a twisted ‘Voodoo’-soaked Haiti to the American public. The potency of this imagery proved so powerful as to inform narratives about Haiti to the present day. In the 1970s the Haitian government even used this imagery to sell the island back to prospective American tourists, while in a May 2013 survey of package tourists visiting Haiti, 90% of respondents said that they’d hoped to see ‘voodoo performances’ during their trip.

from John Alexander Hammerton’s Peoples Of All Nations: Their Life Today And Story Of Their Past (1922)
US Marines attempt to win heart and minds, in a photo from John Alexander Hammerton’s Peoples Of All Nations: Their Life Today And Story Of Their Past (1922)

Travel guidebooks have thankfully evolved a long way from the parochial and casually racist attitudes of the 1920s. But the US occupation of Haiti still casts a long shadow, and what makes these books interesting today is how much can be carried forward to the present. The relentless focus on the country being open for business (even down to a prescient comment about the potential for mining), the closed circle of many expats in Haiti and even the paternalist need for an occupying army to stitch the country together (only after anti-American banditry is eradicated can Haitians ‘in time learn to govern themselves in freedom’) – all find their echoes in the 21st century. Some narratives apparently take a little longer to change.

You can find the complete text of the Livre bleu d’Haïti online at the Digital Library of the Caribbean, and A Guide to the West Indies, Bermuda and Panama at the Internet Archive.


The joys of old travel guides

1980s guidebooks to Haiti
1980s guidebooks to Haiti

I’m a sucker for old travel guidebooks. They’re like time capsules, revealing not just how countries change, but how travel – and travel writing – changes along with them. One of the favourites on my shelf is a 1986 copy of one of the original backpacking bibles, Lonely Planet’s Africa on a Shoestring. It’s a freewheeling sort of book that speaks to LP’s hippy trail roots. There’s not so much on the mechanics of getting from A to B, but plenty on scoring dope in Guinea-Bissau or how male travellers can hide their long hair when crossing into Malawi (their dictatorial President-for-Life hated hippies; the LP guide itself was a banned book). There’s also food for thought for nostalgists complaining how travel isn’t like it used to be. No-one is likely to be updating the section on where to find the best Chinese food in Mogadishu anytime soon, but the book also passes quickly over neighbouring Ethiopia, then inaccessible due to the murderous Derg regime in Addis Ababa, but now with a thriving tourist industry.

When talking about my Haiti guide for Bradt, I frequently tell people that it’s the first dedicated English guide to the country since the 1980s. So I was thrilled to recently pick up a copy of one of its forebears, previously unknown to me – Haiti: Voodoo Kingdom to Modern Riviera by John Allen Franciscus.

To foreign visitors at the time, Haiti was booming. Mass-market tourism was in, with Club Med opening its doors in 1980, just in time for the guidebook’s publication. Haiti was somewhere to forget your cares, renowned for sex tourism. Haiti was also a draw for foreign business. Under Jean-Claude Duvalier’s rule, sweatshops proliferated, manufacturing 90% of the world’s baseballs, with no inconvenient minimum wage.

We expect modern guidebooks today to be aimed at the middle-brow tourist in a hurry – plenty of ‘Best of’ lists, suggested itineraries and a dollop of insight. There’s none of that on display here. Indeed, the book’s over-sized format is hardly compatible with a day tramping around the tourist sites. Travel information such as hotel listings are briskly dealt with in the first dozen pages, before moving onto more interesting matters. It’s essentially an expat guide – the equivalent of those modern briefing kits given out to NGO workers or church volunteers on mission, just without any fussing over cultural niceties.

So, what did an American heading to Port-au-Prince in 1980 need to know?

History, for a start. There’s a decent account of the Haitian Revolution, even hat-tipping CLR James’s classic The Black Jacobins, despite its ‘Marxist-Trotskyite’ undertones. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the US occupation garners plenty of enthusiasm. While acknowledging that the American use of forced labour might have been a step too far, the book dutifully notes:

For nineteen years Haiti had its first taste of the practical outside world… In short, the marines improved whatever they touched.

In case you don’t get a clear enough picture of where the author is coming from, we’re left with a smiling portrait of Duvalier fils, and a reminder that a country like Haiti will always need ‘a strong hand and a benevolent dictator’ to keep things in order.

There then follows a short picture-led gazetteer to Port-au-Prince and the country at large. Relatively few foreigners these days visit the dock areas downtown or the decrepit Bicentenaire, and it’s bitter-sweet to recall that this area was once a dynamic area known for its modernist architecture and nightlife, and that tourists arriving by ship (as most did) would likely be reminded of the Bay of Naples or the French Riviera as they steamed into Port-au-Prince. Outside the capital there’s a decent room-by-room walking tour of the Citadelle, and even a few gems to follow up on for the next edition of my own Haiti guide. For instance, does anyone know what happened to the monument to Franklin D Roosevelt in Cap-Haïtien?

A Haiti guidebook writer, with bored 'native' companion.
A happy Haiti guidebook writer. His companion, less so.

After a long diversion about the value of Haitian art, we get to the meat of the book. Readers are treated to the ins and outs of life as an American in Haiti. There are are long sections on business and employment law, how best to decorate your new home and even how much maternity leave female employees are entitled to should they get pregnant. Residents are advised to join a local club and church to get on in society, and spend 20 minutes a day on their French grammar (the thought that Creole, the first language of over 90% of the population, might be more useful never occurs). Those readers who nodded approvingly at the account of the US occupation would have found much to cheer them – an enviable lifestyle, plenty of servants (always servants, never staff) and ‘low cost labor.’ In today’s parlance, Haiti was certainly ‘open for business.’ Perhaps an updated edition should be due for those investors heading to the country’s new Caracol Industrial Park.

Of course, hard-working businessmen need to unwind, and it’s here that the author suddenly realises he needs to think like a guidebook writer, and provide some proper reviews. But the ‘voodoo’ shows aimed at the regular tourists don’t interest him or his readers, so off we go to the brothels that lined the Carrefour Road out of Port-au-Prince. The backrooms of bars are commended for cleanliness, the friendliest madams are cheered, and the rigorousness of venereal disease-testing noted. Reviewing the Copacabana Bar for example:

This gets high marks because it is an open pavilion and the fifteen girls are quite attractive. Here 60% of the girls are Spanish-speaking from the Dominican Republic. They range in age from late teens to early twenties and usually only spend a month under their visa restrictions before they return to their normal ordinary jobs in their own country. Their parents are not usually aware they have gone “professional.”

It’s all jaw-dropping stuff. But while the attitudes on display are abhorrent (Haitians are frequently referred to as ‘natives’), it’s a revealing look into the mindset of many foreigners travelling to Haiti at the time. The country was about cheap assembly factories and having a louche time – screwing Haitians, basically – so by his own standards the author actually does his job as a guidebook writer very well, hitting all the spots that his target audience need. There’s even a detailed section on how to get a quickie divorce.

For all the author’s assertions about the stability and prosperity of the Haitian regime, and all it offered to visitors, he’s painting an attractive fantasy for his readers. The good life was always an illusion for those suffering under the Duvalier dictatorship. As the book came out, the ‘AIDS scare’ of the early 1980s was waiting around the corner, about to cause Haitian tourism numbers to collapse virtually overnight. Any remaining visitors were driven away after the ouster of Jean-Claude Duvalier in 1986 and the troubles that followed.

Haiti: Voodoo Kingdom to Modern Riviera is certainly a flawed and problematic book, but as a window into a world that was about to come crashing down, it’s never less than fascinating.