The deep understanding of cultures, history and people that we get when we visit a country bonds us to it in a very personal way, and that bond never breaks.
It's one reason why so many of us prefer to spend our money collecting travel experiences rather than consumer goods, which sooner or later break, go out of fashion or become obsolete.
While these personal bonds tend to serve up a stream of positive memories and feelings, they don't filter out other emotions.
Ten months ago, I visited Haiti for an article about a USAID-funded project designed to develop tourism to the nation. I met dozens of people who were working hard, under difficult conditions, to revive a potentially important economic sector for their nation and build an infrastructure that would enable them to share a unique and rich culture.
The news coming out of Haiti since last week's earthquake is devastating, and one doesn't need a personal connection to be deeply moved by what's happening there. I have been trying, with limited success, to contact, or ascertain the status of, people whom I met and spent time with there.
I've not been able to get through by phone. Even in areas outside Port-au-Prince, I get "circuits are busy" recordings.
I received two replies to email, neither of them with encouraging news. One was from a person (who asked to remain anonymous) involved in tourism promotion who wrote that a team of tourism experts had come to Haiti on the day of the quake to help assess tourism needs. Three of them were staying at the Montana Hotel in Port-au-Prince, which later that afternoon was destroyed in the quake. One is now at the hospital and two are unaccounted for.
The other email was from Jean-Bernard Simonnet, owner of the Hotel Cormier Plage on the northern coast and active in tourism promotion along the north shore.
He wrote, "We are in shock and not yet sure of what we have lost and what is in the future." He is in contact with the Dominican Republic Ministry of Tourism, hoping that tours that were supposed to start coming from the Dominican Republic later this month haven't been canceled. He is also wondering how refugees flooding up from the south will affect nearby Cap Haitien.
During my visit, I accompanied consultant Dexter Koehl, a former vice president of industry relations for the U.S. Travel Association, who had been hired by subcontractor International Executive Services Corp. to develop a plan to revive tourism in the country.
The IESC is no longer involved in the project, and fortunately, Koehl was not on the island during the quake. He has heard that several people we had met there last year are unharmed. I have done unsuccessful Web searches trying to find out the status of others, including the country's tourism minister, Patrick Delatour, whom I interviewed in a building near the now heavily damaged presidential palace.
One person with whom I have had ongoing contact -- in fact, I saw him when he came to New York last fall -- was Richard Morse, who runs the famed Hotel Oloffson, which inspired the setting of Graham Greene's Duvalier-era novel "The Comedians." It has been an offbeat, "hip" hotel since the 1950s, and Morse leads the house "voodoo rock" band, RAM.
I had read on the front page of the New York Times that a wall at the front of the hotel had fallen, killing a passerby, but there were no details about the property itself or about Morse. Koehl told me that, by chance, he heard an NPR interview with Morse, who said the property had sustained damage but was still standing.
Not so at another property where I stayed, the Montana Hotel. It was generally regarded as one of the best in the city, but it has been leveled by the quake. I had interviewed the Montana's co-owner and general manager, Garthe Cardozo Stefanson, who is also the daughter of the founder of the hotel. I have not been able to find out any information about her since the quake.
I met dozens of people at a reception that had been arranged for the occasion of Koehl's and my visit at the modern Karibe Hotel in Port-au-Prince. That beautiful new hotel was reported by the Sydney Herald to have been destroyed, along with the Hotel Christophe, whose owner I met at the reception (and who had convinced me that I should stay there on my next visit).
Travel creates personal bonds, and in this instance, my bond with Haiti has resulted in emotions ranging from some relief that certain people I met are OK to worry for those whose status I don't know. And I share with many others in the industry and around the world a deep despair for a nation that can't seem to catch a break.
With the exception of Labadee, Royal Caribbean Cruises' private destination on the northern coast (the line reports it was unaffected by the quake), tourism development efforts in Haiti, small as they were, have now suffered a setback of an enormous magnitude.
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There are many worthy agencies soliciting donations to address Haiti's most immediate needs. If you would like to assist an industry effort to help provide aid to Haiti, consider donating to Airline Ambassadors, a volunteer organization founded by former flight attendant Nancy Rivard. Go to www.airlineamb.org for details.
In addition, click here for a running list of what some members of the industry are doing to help out the Haiti quake victims.
Contact Arnie Weissmann at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter.