Tourist in Haiti Aidworks Emily Troutman

Haiti Tourism: Challenging, But Charming to Some

I spotted Taryn Jones, who was wearing a backpack and had a dazed look on her face. She’d just arrived in Haiti. Taryn has pretty, reddish hair and big blue eyes. She was squinting, as if trying to make sense of it all: the horns honking, people yelling, roosters crowing, stereos blasting. Dust swirled around her. It wasn’t what she had been expecting.

This week, in Port-au-Prince, a cast of stars applauded the opening of a new Marriott hotel. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton and billionaire investor Denis O’Brien touted the hotel’s importance to Haiti’s economy. Pop culture favorite TOMS announced free “custom-designed” shoes for hotel employees. Haiti-regular, actor Sean Penn, was in attendance, and celebrity chef Jose Andres even got in on the action.

The $45 million hotel is just the latest in a series of foreign investments ostensibly intended to spark the tourism economy. Including the Marriott, six major hotels have opened in Haiti since the earthquake. Unfortunately for Taryn, none of the new developments were meant for her.

FEW TRUE TOURISTS

There was a lot of buzz in the air about Haiti when Taryn booked her plane ticket and a hotel, sight-unseen. So she had no idea what a crazy thing she’d done. She doesn’t work in Haiti. She had never been to Haiti before. She knew no one in the country. She didn’t book a tour. She did not travel as a volunteer or a missionary.

Taryn’s not the first tourist to visit Haiti, but she is certainly among a select few. Haiti’s government has reported that more than 360,000 foreign visitors came to Haiti in 2013. Despite this number, actual “tourists” are a very, very small percentage of the visitors.

Richard Morse, owner of the landmark Hotel Oloffson, wrote to me via e-mail. Last year, he says, his hotel hosted “maybe a dozen true tourists.” Right now, the tourism market in Haiti is dominated by people already working in the country or “voluntourists,” who come with groups or churches.

Things used to be different. Like Cuba, Haiti’s music and art are powerful draws. Morse told me that music is the biggest single factor that has increased occupancy at his hotel over the years. His band, RAM, plays a regular gig on Thursday nights in the parlor of the hotel.

“People like good music,” he says.

AN INFRASTRUCTURE DEFICIT

Haiti enjoyed periods of popularity during the 1950s and 1970s, in part, because Americans have always been drawn to Haitian culture. The government says they would like to see that era return. Several big hotels have been built and plans are underway to put a golf course and resort on a remote island.

The problem with Haiti’s strategy, as Taryn discovered, is that the improvements were made for people who came for work.

Getting around is a challenge, especially for the independent traveller.

People who come to Haiti on assignment don’t pay their own way―they charge the U.S. government or write off expenses as a tax deduction. They also never have to navigate the country alone.

Paul Clammer is the author of Haiti, the Bradt Travel Guide, a guidebook for visitors. He says Haiti is “one of the most compelling destinations” in the region and has great potential for people interested in adventure and culture. 

“But it still suffers from a big infrastructure deficit for foreign visitors,” he says, “which can make getting around a challenge―especially for the independent traveler.”

For example, Taryn’s journey―just from the airport to the hotel―was enough to leave her humbled, and exhausted.

FACING THE REALITY

“I thought I was trying to be open to whatever comes,” she told me. “Then you come face to face with it. And you realize, you were secretly expecting things.”

She laughs and adds, “Like a sign at the airport that says TAXI HERE. I guess I was expecting a sign.”

Foreign visitors usually have chauffeurs waiting for them and the disembarking zone is uncomfortable for an unaccompanied tourist. Taxi drivers don’t stand in a queue and they all try to hustle for a fare.

Taryn said she tried to stay cool, then picked a driver from the pack with a “leap of faith.” She was scared when his car was parked in an adjacent lot.

“He’s weaving me through all these people and all these cars and I’m kind of inwardly panicking,” she said. “Like, where’s your car, dude? Then we get to an unmarked vehicle and I’m like, okay, I hope I don’t get kidnapped.”

Fear of being kidnapped in Haiti is common, even though the risk is minuscule, particularly for foreigners. Last year there was one incident with a U.S. citizen. Comparatively, Mexico had 130.

But fear and instability remain part of the narrative of “Haiti” and the poverty in the streets implies lawlessness. Trash is scattered everywhere, street lights are rarely present, and most houses in the city are surrounded by walls.

THE COSTS OF EXPLORING

Foreigners aren’t alone in their fears. Haitians are sometimes the first to warn visitors against exploring.

Martin Boserup, another tourist, was traveling through Haiti with a companion. When he told the receptionist at their hotel that they would like to walk from one part of the city to another, the man balked.

“He kept saying, Oh it’s dangerous, it’s dangerous,” Martin said. Martin told the man they didn’t mind walking. “And yeah it was dangerous,” he continued. “But that’s because of all the dust and smog. It wasn’t dangerous because of the people. It was dangerous because of the pollution.”

Like Martin, Taryn tried to get out there and explore but found it difficult. She wasn’t comfortable walking alone and hired a driver. The driver charged her $150 for the day, a high but all-too-typical rate, inflated, in part, because most foreigners travel with per diems.

LOOKING FOR THE REAL HAITI 

At the Marriott’s opening, Bill Clinton said, “I want to thank [Marriott] for giving all of you the chance to show the real Haiti to the world that will come to this hotel.”

It’s a nice idea, but most true tourists, like Taryn, don’t see the Marriott as a good starting place. True tourists are reticent to stay in big hotels with generic furnishings and windows that won’t open. It runs contrary to the cultural Caribbean experience they were promised.

Marriott had to build their own power plant and water treatment facility to run the hotel.

It also doesn’t reflect much reality. To run the Marriott, owners had to build their own “stand alone” utility services, since adequate power and water aren’t provided by the state.

The hotel includes a power plant with six megawatt diesel generators, supplemented with a single megawatt solar farm. They built water containment tanks to last five days, with water brought in by trucks. To handle sewage, they built a 60,000-gallon water treatment facility, a feat no one was able to accomplish for Haitians after the earthquake.

Taryn was puzzled when her driver, Joseph, insisted on driving around the Best Western, just to show it to her.

“I know what a Best Western is,” she said. 

The major hotels have been hyped, even in the local media. Joseph seemed to think of the Best Western as a cultural asset. He had no idea what Port-au-Prince’s actual attractions were.

When Taryn asked to see the artisans at Croix des Bouquets, Joseph took her to the intersection of two roads, where there was nothing to see. When she asked to explore a post-earthquake settlement and walk in the streets, he was afraid. He only agreed to do it if he could tell the locals she was planning to build a school.

WHERE’S THE BEACH?

In search of authenticity, and in an attempt to save some money, Taryn decided to head to the ocean. She’d seen it from the plane but had not yet gone swimming. She was thrilled to find an “ocean view” room in Port-au-Prince for $28.

Few hotels in the city are less than $70 a night and most are more. Amazingly, the Marriott’s cheapest room is almost precisely the same rate as the U.S. government per diem, $155.

The hotel Taryn found had a compelling online description. “Five minutes to the beach,” they wrote, adding that it was in a “gated community.”

The driver even looked worried for me.

“When we finally found the place,” Taryn told me, “down the end of a true Haitian alleyway, the driver even looked worried for me and kept asking if I was sure this was okay.”

The “hotel” turned out to be a house―with a gate―in the shoddy neighborhood of Carrefour. The nearest “beach” to her hotel was an oil refinery, surrounded by slums. Ultimately, she was too scared to go looking for it.

If Taryn had found the “beach,” she would have been sorely disappointed. Since Haiti has no water or trash treatment facilities, everything washes out into the ocean. There is no beach in Port-au-Prince considered safe for swimming.

NOT FOR THE “SUN LOUNGERS”

“If I had known what these ‘hotels’ were really like and what I was really in for,” Taryn told me, “I would have packed entirely different, planned different. But I didn’t know any of that.”

“And not only is there no one telling you really how to do anything, much less street signs,” she said, “there’s just… there’s nothing much to hold onto, to find footing on.”

Martin had a similar experience. Inside of Port-au-Prince, he was befuddled by the walls, which hid the things he wanted to see, including houses, restaurants and hotels.

“The first two days we were here,” Martin told me, “we thought we were the only white people. Then we realized, they’re all behind walls, drinking their mojitos or whatever.”

He eventually made it to the city of Jacmel, which he enjoyed, but the minibus trip to get there was long. He told me that, at one point during the journey, “It took five hours to travel forty kilometers. Why did it take so long? I think ‘Haiti’ would be the best answer.”

Paul Clammer, the Haiti guidebook author, agrees that “It’s not the Caribbean for those who just want to sit on a sun lounger.”

Taryn, for her part, wasn’t scared off. She planned to return again, determined to “figure out” the puzzle of Haiti. The charisma of the island nation got to her.

“I guess that’s the weirdest thing that’s happened to me so far,” she said. “That even though I am experiencing all these things, Haiti has pulled me in.”

 


 

 

I really felt sorry for Taryn, so I did show her some of what Haiti has to offer. We went to see RAM together.

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There are 11 comments

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  1. John Peltier

    Loved the commentary about how different Haiti is from the rest of the “Caribbean tourist” islands. The only Haitian location I’ve ever been is a small island off of the southwestern corner called Ile A Vache…I stopped there for a few days on a sailing trip.
    What completely blew me away was how friendly the people were. I had no clue what to expect (it was something along the lines of extreme poverty and danger) but they were very kind, welcoming me into their homes to feed me, bringing water out to my boat, and so on. I did feel really safe.
    I had such a great experience that I’m sailing back there in a few weeks to work on some projects for the island.
    It’s really too bad it has a reputation of being such a dangerous, anti-tourist place!

  2. Maggy Gousse

    I really think it’s foolish for Americans or other cultures to come to Haiti thinking it’s going to be Bahamas! It is also foolish to come to Haiti and expect the worst and nothing good! I moved to Haiti 3 months ago and God I am happy. Indeed like Mr Peltier has mentioned, the people are kind and friendly. Goodness, these people have very little to give and they will still share whatever they have with you. I have no car and I take the Taptaps all the time, just so I can meet and indulge of this wonderful culture. Can’t be slow in Haiti, you must be quick thinking and quick action! Can you imagine the dendrites in these peoples brains? It’s quick! You cannot and truly absolutely not think as a tourist here. It is an adventure and a great adventure, if you walk around without your camera , jewelry or anything luxurious because indeed if I had nothing and I would see another with whatever, as a human being, it would steer my senses. Wouldn’t you ? In Haiti you have to be smart or just don’t come. Sorry but it is a fact!

  3. Jean Sebastien Roy

    Haiti is not ready for mass tourism, for a multitude of reasons, only some of which were described in the article. However, there are definitely a wide variety of pleasurable, unforgettable sights to see, and experiences to enjoy for the more adventurous tourist. These destinations are mostly outside of the capital, in the Northern region around the city of Cap Haitien, or in the south-east provincial town of Jacmel, a true cultural jewel. Other provincial destinations, around the cities of Cayes, or Jeremie, are probably too far to envision unless accompanied by Haitien friends.

    The “pure” north or south american or european tourist who is planning to visit the captal of Port-au-Prince on a whim, might be best councelled to read up on the country first, and if possible, to ask trustworthy haitian friends for advise and local contacts !

  4. Mandy

    Not all tourists are volunteers or missionaries, but many do that FIRST as a means of research, which can take a lot of time otherwise. I have worked and travelled in almost all regions of Haiti over 6 years – without much money, but with some French and Creole, making friends as I went. Two of the biggest boons to low-budget tourists and visitors have to be Capital Coachlines (greyhound style buses – cheap, clean, and on time, and you can book online) and volunteer hostels such as Matthew 25 House in Delmas 33.
    I agree the airport and taxi gauntlet is a serious problem!

  5. George

    “We will adapt You to service Us…” – the Borg, STNG

    I would much rather see the establishment of micro-financing experiments towards finding one that is culturally efficient at facilitating the creativity and ingenuity of the populace. The lack of micro loans and experience with such processes is one of the biggest hurdles faced by such communities within the global market system of commodities. Places are a lot more interesting to visit when the locals are not desperate but have been able to cultivate their talents, properties, and customs to delight themselves and their guests.

    My $0.02

  6. George

    🙂

    There appears to be a Grameene bank in Haiti. I don’t know their level of activity.

    However, taxes but also banks are an essential means by which communities pool their resources to invest in themselves. When banks become disinterested (lower risk and higher profits elsewhere), the community must establish a credit union, which is essentially what Grameene bank is.

    http://www.grameencreativelab.com/node/1307
    http://www.grameencreativelab.com/live-examples/yy-haiti.html

    The Turkish laundry mat donation sounds excellent. However, a better way to help may be to support their subscription to a respectable local financial institution, perhaps by guaranteeing backing a loan towards equipment purchase. Once they have a relationship, future loans and advice should be forth coming. The experience for them should also be informative.

    Alternatively, it may be possible to leverage the gift into a more substantial loan that covers equipment *rental* with supplies, promotion, insurance, and other operating costs for a couple years while the business grows to sustainable revenue. Perhaps there is a local social bank such as Grameene that could provide descent forms of all these services. It would be nice if the laundry-mat could become a business management training ground for the orphans or a local college…getting ahead of myself. (Note: the repair of rental equipment is typically not the responsibility of the renter and the available cash from not purchasing outright or loan payments may be better spent on supplies, insurance, accessories, etc. to lower business risk)

    TMI? 😉

    Good luck to you and your friend.

  7. Bobbi

    “True tourists are reticent to stay in big hotels with generic furnishings and windows that won’t open. It runs contrary to the cultural Caribbean experience they were promised.” So true. Typical tourists don’t travel to go spend time in a hotel! As a person of the Caribbean, Jamaica to be precise, I know that the big draw for people visiting is to see the “real deal, everyday-living” of the locals while being able to go back to an affordable resting place for more local flavor. Whenever I travel, I spend very little time in the walls of the hotel/guest house/B&B. Even then, I try to find a local recommendation – one that has a significant cultural vibe. Yes, these prominent hotels are investing in the country, but they’re totally missing the base population that would vacation in Haiti. Those hotels are big names and they come with big prices. Vacationers today are thrifty. Investing in the infrastructure for independent travelers and loans for small tourist resting establishments would be a better way to go in my opinion. IMHO, if these big hotels want to chip in and help the economy/boost tourism, they should back some of those locally-owned B&B/guest house initiatives.

  8. George

    Before I begin, I am not against the big hotels, provided they do not compel directly or indirectly the population into servicing them, such as by depriving traditional means (farming, fishing, and route access)…Now I think…

    Big money cannot be a friend, however it may pretend. It is managed by people whose obligation is to maximize a return on investment for masters distant or virtual. They must see only the bottom line. To do any more (or less) is a dereliction of duty. Consequently, they must treat Haiti like a mule or at best a disposable tool. Do not be fooled by promises. The promisers can be promoted out or fired.

    The traditional defence against such mess is, as it is in first world countries, a loyal and responsive government; a fighter for the local’s interest with a plan against the worst effects.

    Yet, it should be noted, a government that depends on foreign donors will have a hard time with loyalty …and the requisite responsiveness. This condition is not a matter of personality. It is a structural consequence, like a three legged stool v.s. a four legged one. (Once Haiti start funding their own government, then Haiti will have a government.)


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