Transat Holidays returns vacationers to Haiti after 23 years-Added COMMENTARY By Haitian-Truth
I have been to Haiti 13 times and have never once met a tourist there.
I have met Haitian-Canadians and Haitian-Americans returning to their former home to reconnect with family, entrepreneurs and planeloads of aid workers in matching T-shirts, usually on a Christian mission to rebuild a church or orphanage . . . but not one single flip-flop-attired tourist.
The earthquake had something to do with that, of course. And the cholera outbreak that followed. And what pointy-heads call the “political instability” — shooting and tire burning protests in the streets.
When people picture Haiti, they do not typically conjure a sandy beach beneath coconut trees, although I visited one of these last September and can tell you, it was breathtaking.
Before the earthquake, there were other tourist bogeymen — the United Nations tanks, two coups, a line of eager voters being mowed down by military gunmen. And before that, there was AIDS.
The cruise ships that bravely continued to pull into the country’s northern ports told their languid sunbathers they were visiting “Hispanola” — the name of the island Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic — for fear of triggering strokes on board.
All this might be changing though.
Last week, Transat Holidays announced, for the first time in 23 years, it will offer week-long holiday packages from Montreal to Haiti starting January. Tourists will spend two nights in upscale hotels in Port-au-Prince before being whisked to the coast for some of that beach I mentioned. They will visit the new iron market, a rum factory, a wonderful look-out over the city and none of the earthquake carnage, Transat’s spokesperson Debbie Cabana told me.
“We want to show people Haiti as a tourist destination,” she said.
They are offering only 30 spots on the plane a month. (Others can join from Port-au-Prince for the beach portion.) But it’s part of a growing trend.
Earlier this month, a new swanky 128-room hotel, with a $1,300-per-night presidential suite, opened in the upscale Port-au-Prince suburb of Petionville. Before that, the international airport’s $4 million reconstruction was finally completed, with baggage carousels and passport control booths not made out of plywood!
Haiti’s Tourism Minister told the Caribbean Journal a tourist information stand will go up there too.
Oh, what joy that will bring me.
A quick anecdote: Two of my bosses decided to come with me to Haiti two years ago. I wanted, of course, to make sure everything went smoothly. Renting a car in Haiti after the earthquake was impossible — the big aid groups had cornered the market. So I booked a driver to pick us up at the airport. His car broke down ten minutes after our departure.
At the time, you could not call a taxi in Port-au-Prince. You simply had to spot one, picking out the telltale red sash hanging from the rear-view mirror inside the cab.
I flagged down a United Nations car driven by an African soldier who flagged down a Haitian cop who flagged down a limping van with no gas in its tank. We lurched through three closed gas stations before rolling to our hotel. The wise driver charged us a fortune which we gladly paid in our relief.
The hotel was one of the few undamaged by the earthquake. But it felt more like a backpackers’ dive than a high-end holiday destination, with ants on the beds, groaning bathroom pipes and an old piano missing most of its ivory keys.
The night before we were due to return home, I stopped at the front desk to order an airport car. The concierge asked to use my cell phone. The phone on the desk beside him clearly didn’t work. After making some calls, he instructed me to come back in an hour.
When I dutifully returned, he announced: “We don’t offer cabs to the airport.” I begged a ride from a kind friend.
All of this makes for a great story and a lousy vacation. My point: It will take much work to build back Haiti’s tourism industry.
I spoke to Michaëlle Jean yesterday, Canada’s former Governor General, now UNESCO’s special envoy to Haiti.
She told me the Haitian Tourism Ministry’s plan is a thing of beauty, with training for hotel workers, expanded regional airports and reconstructed historic sites around the country.
She’s so taken with the idea she’s spending Christmas in Haiti with her family. She booked the flights herself, hired a driver and rental car — there are some now! — and booked hotels in three places, including a southern beach, where they’ll spend a week.
“The service is good, the water falls are majestic, the caves are beautiful,” she said breathlessly.
She promised to report back after her trip.
I hope her optimism is well-founded. If some of the 4.3 million tourists who visited the other side of Hispanola last year decide to venture across the border, many Haitian jobs will be created.
Almost three years after the terrible earthquake, that’s what most Haitians say they need the most.