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.