The assistant to the chairman of the Haitian League, an organization for Haitians in diaspora, has never lived in Haiti. He has no relatives there, and he doesnt speak or understand the local patois. Haiti was, until he visited the island as a cruise passenger 15 years ago, just another name on the map.

His reaction to Port-au-Prince 15 years ago? It was a horror show. And he says its worse today. The unpaved, pothole-ridden streets of the capital are lined with burnt-out cars and patrolled by U.N. troops trying to maintain order in a city plagued by kidnappings and murders.

Still, after visiting Haiti three months ago, he left thinking of it as the next Cancun.

How can you talk tourism when youve got the U.N. keeping your peace? he wonders aloud. No electricity, no water. Its just destitute. But Ive never seen so much potential, so much opportunity.

The assistant to the chairman of the Haitian League has a plan, a fast track, for rebuilding the country, and he hopes to discuss it with Rene Preval, the president of Haiti, in two weeks.

Before anything can happen, they have to fix safety and security, he says. Without the perception that Haiti is safe, no one will come. But to keep it secure, the economy needs to be fixed. Its the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, with the highest unemployment and high illiteracy.

The challenges of fixing Haiti have perplexed Haitians and donor nations for decades, I tell him. What could he do that they couldnt?

President Preval is whats different, he says. I see a glimmer of hope. Hes honest and everyone has faith in him -- theres aid available from the international community. He can do it.

The assistant chairman of the Haitian League is Michael Spinelli, former travel agency owner, former owner of the Action 6 consortium (later absorbed by Vacation-.com) and former president of ASTA. He is nominally retired from the travel industry -- he does consulting occasionally -- but he says, I work a bit on Haiti every day.

He grew interested in the island after talking with Patrick OShea, an industry veteran who was raising funds for a Catholic orphanage there. The two joined forces, collecting donations and even arranging for a school bus to be given to the children. (Exploiting industry connections, they enlisted Royal Caribbean International to deliver the bus to the island.)

I saw that charities were helping with some immediate problems in Haiti, but I kept thinking, Why doesnt someone go down there and attack the root of the problem? Spinelli says. When you look at life from my age, you want to do something.

In his career, Spinelli was more closely associated with brashness than sensitivity, but he says he was profoundly touched by his visits to Haiti.

Anyone who goes there, you just melt. You think, Ive got to help these people. Theres something about these Haitians -- theyre very smart. Id love to run a conference for investment in Haiti.

Spinelli has beaten long odds in his life, most notably in his successful run for the ASTA presidency at a time when there was strong resistance to the idea that the head of a consortium should lead the association. But turning a country wracked by civil strife into the next Cancun is a challenge of quite a different magnitude.

As I speak to him about Haiti, I feel at times that he is naive, yet at other times I find his optimism inspirational.

I feel this way, he responds after I suggest that Haiti is, if not a lost cause, an extremely difficult case. I learned a long time ago that if you picture anything in your mind, somethings generated in the human psyche that makes it come to pass. It sounds crazy. But if I can do something for Haiti, Ill rest in peace. That poor country has been through so much. In the next decade, I believe, things will really happen.

A Web site maintained by the Catholic Community Forum lists hundreds of saints associated with geographic places, from Abbeville, France, to Zutphen, Netherlands. None are from Haiti. For the time being, Haitians are likely to turn instead to one of the four patron saints connected to desperate, forgotten, impossible or lost causes.

Or -- could it be? Mike Spinelli?

Just picture it in your mind ...

Comments

From Our Partners

2020 Sandos Palmaia 2 Webinar
Discover Palmaïa - The House of AïA
Watch Now
American Queen South
American Queen Steamboat Company
Read More
2020 NTG Webinar Series
Travel, Our Future and Yours A Series of Conversations with Industry Leaders
Register Now

JDS Travel News JDS Viewpoints JDS Africa/MI