Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Reviving HAITI'S Paradise

Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Reviving HAITI'S Paradise

Article excerpt

With unique resources, this country is poised to compete for investment capital and a booming Caribbean tourism market

A growing number of adventure tourists are visiting Haiti these days. They are attracted by the country's original art, impressive fortresses and other architecture, unspoiled beaches, and vibrant religious culture, all of which distinguishes Haiti when it comes to Caribbean tourist destinations. Ernest V. Bellande, special advisor to the country's Ministry of Tourism in Port-au-Prince, says about two thousand visitors a week are now crossing the border by bus from the Dominican Republic, which together with Haiti shares the island of Hispaniola.

Although the trend is encouraging, Bellande says that's not enough to bring back Haiti's tourist industry, which in the 1950s and 1960s was one of the strongest in the Caribbean. Today, following years of political violence and miserable economic conditions, only 150,000 tourists a year come to Haiti, including Haitians on family trips. That compares to the millions of North Americans and Europeans visiting Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, the Bahamas, and other Caribbean islands.

Curiously, as late as 1981, Haiti and the Dominican Republic each had around two thousand hotel rooms. Today, the Dominican Republic boasts over forty thousand rooms, while Haiti's stock has shriveled to only one thousand rooms.

"Tourists used to visit Haiti, and go to the D.R. as a side trip. Now it's the reverse," complains Pierre Chauvet Fils, president of Agency Citadelle, one of Haiti's biggest travel agencies. "The political situation of 1986 onward [the year Jean-Claude Duvalier, known as "Baby Doc," was overthrown] created a bad image. We had very few North Americans visiting because of the very bad press. The country suffered a lot because of one-sided reporting. So now we need a little positive news."

Nevertheless, the tourism industry is hopeful that Haiti's latest strategic plan for the development of Cap-Haitien will make the country more attractive to visitors. The project, launched with $110,000 from the Organization of American States (OAS), seeks additional funding from private companies and foundations.

Haiti's second city, Cap-Haitien had only thirty thousand inhabitants in 1971. Today it counts over 300,000 and is still growing. A wealthy capital curing colonial times, the city was burned to the ground three times--in 1734, 1798, and 1802--and was destroyed again during an 1842 earthquake. Cap-Haitien today suffers the same social and physical infrastructure problems as the rest of Haiti, though its historic center is distinguished by some well-preserved, Spanish-influenced mansions, and it is only twenty minutes by car from some rather spectacular beaches, and about half an hour's drive from Sans Souci and the Citadelle.

According to the Ministry of Tourism's rather enthusiastic projections, Haiti could have five thousand hotel rooms by 2004, and as many as twenty thousand over the long term--generating thirty thousand direct jobs and sixty thousand indirect jobs in construction, services, and transportation.

Haitian-born Claude Larreur, acting director of the tourism unit at the OAS, insists that those numbers are not pie in the sky. "This projection is based on the fact that our beaches and other tourism resources are as good as those of the Dominican Republic, so there's no reason we couldn't get to those levels," says Larreur. "The resources are there to make Haiti a first-class tourist destination. But right now, there are other priorities in Haiti. The resources the government can earmark for tourism are very limited. This is why we need external funding."

Despite the difficulties, tourists have been coming to Haiti for years. Undoubtedly, one of the country's strongest attractions is its highly original, vividly colorful paintings.

In 1935 U.S. art critic Selden Rodman visited Cap-Haitien and wrote a play, The Revolution, about Haitian heroes Henri Christophe, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, and Toussaint L'Ouverture. …

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