The Haitian government has elevated tourism to the top of its development agenda, identifying it as a priority in improving the country’s stagnant economy. But is tourism really Haiti’s magic bullet?
A just-released study endeavored to answer that question by surveying 2,231 tourists who visited Haiti this year. In a second part of the study, researchers interviewed Haitian drivers, translators, hoteliers, innkeepers, guides and other tourism workers with whom visitors often interact.
Tourists surveyed included travelers of Haitian descent in addition to other tourists.
The short answer revealed by the survey is that Haiti’s tourism potential might be better than expected if it targets the right demographic.
Moreover, the study found that tourism potential exists despite the many obstacles this disaster-prone country has faced over the years, including a long history of despotism, political instability, coups, rampant poverty, corruption and criminal violence, all of it topped by the devastating 2010 earthquake.
The study was conducted by the Brazil-based Igarape Institute, a network of researchers, legal experts, entrepreneurs and activists committed to social transformation on issues of security and development.
The institute’s goal was to assess the extent to which Haiti is safe for tourism and to explore how tourists and industry professionals view their role in the country’s efforts to increase tourism. Based on their findings, the researchers offered a number of recommendations.
A primary force behind the tourism push has been Stephanie Villedrouin, Haiti’s minister of tourism, who aims to market the country’s music, art, Creole culture, crafts and cuisine while moving away from an image of volunteers and missionaries dispensing humanitarian aid.
Villedrouin seeks the help of agents and tour operators to visit Haiti, sell the country and send leisure travelers to its shores.
Those efforts are beginning to pay off. Transat Holidays USA, a division of Transat A.T., a Canadian-based tour operator, launched two land packages for U.S. travelers heading to Haiti. The first departure was scheduled for July 17, with five more set for this year and four in 2014.
It marks the first Haiti land packages for U.S. tourists, who fly to Port-au-Prince on American, Delta, Insel or Spirit (plus JetBlue as of Dec. 5) and then pick up Transat’s four-day or weeklong packages.
“These new packages are designed for customers seeking vacations that combine discovery and relaxation,” said Annick Guerard, general manager, Transat Tours Canada. Tourists are invited to “Vivre l’experience Haiti” — live the Haiti experience.
This goes hand in hand with Villedrouin’s twofold aim to move away from the perception that Haiti is all about needing help and to focus instead on developing tourism in a country that long ago fell off the radar of international travelers.
“We are hoping for this development to occur in a responsible and integrated way that takes into account the needs of our people and the protection of the environment,” Villedrouin said.
An influx of foreign currency generated by tourist dollars could help lift the country out of aid dependency and help visitors discover “the soul of the Caribbean,” according to the Ministry of Tourism.
Contrary to the country’s modern image, that view has strong historical roots.
Haiti was the branded “The Pearl of the Antilles” in the 1950s, and the author Graham Greene described it as a tropical idyll in the mid-20th century.
Former president Bill Clinton and his wife and former secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, honeymooned there in 1975.
Club Med was a fixture in Haiti for 20 years until political instability forced it to close in 1997.
The study revealed reasons for optimism about the potential for Haiti’s tourism industry to recover. These are the key findings of the institute’s research:
• The primary reason tourists visited Haiti in early 2013 was to see family and friends or to volunteer in aid development projects. Few tourists visited Haiti explicitly for leisure or recreational purposes.
• Despite dire warnings, tourists rarely experienced violent crime; 3.1% of tourists in the study said they had been a victim of crime while in Haiti.
• Among past visitors, the perception of Haiti as a safe place to visit positively changed between arrival and departure. Overall, tourists said they had felt safer than they had expected during their stay.
• Visitors said informal interactions with locals were the highlights of their trip.
• Garbage and raw sewage on the streets, unsafe driving, seeing the impact of poverty, aggressive begging and earthquake damage were among the experiences that disturbed travelers during their visits.
• Efforts to create Haiti as a high-end destination might be misdirected. Most visitors are working class (50%) or middle class (36%), and the demographics showed that half were Haitian diaspora visitors.
Foreign investors are already eyeing Haiti, as evidenced by the opening of the 128-room Royal Oasis hotel last December and the March debut of the 106-room Best Western Premier, both in Petionville, a suburb of Port-au-Prince.
The Port-au-Prince Marriott broke ground last December for a 173-room hotel, set to open in 2014.
In Faugasse, on Haiti’s southwestern coast, the Institute of Hotel and Tourism Training recently opened, thanks to a remodeling project sponsored by the Ministry of Tourism.
Visitors who participated in the study also offered concrete suggestions for improvements to the existing tourism infrastructure. These included good roads, improved Internet access and more reasonably priced accommodations such as budget hotels and youth hostels.
Follow Gay Nagle Myers on Twitter @gnmtravelweekly.