Violent protests against government corruption, inflation, and currency problems send Haiti’s tourism industry tumbling.
BY JACQUELINE CHARLES
MIAMI HERALD / TNS
PORT-AU-PRINCE,Haiti ‒ The alleged corruption surrounding nearly $2 billion that was supposed to be invested in programs for the poor, and the government’s mismanagement of the economy, have been at the heart of violent demonstrations that have shut down schools, businesses, public transport andother activities across Haiti since Feb. 7.
Haiti’s prime minister, Jean Henry Ceant, reiterated an appeal for dialogue with the country’s political opposition and promised an investigation into the alleged misspending of $2 billion from a Venezuelan PetroCaribe discount oil program that was supposed to be invested in social programs.
The latest protests have been triggered by frustrations over the country’s double-digit inflation, skyrocketing prices, and a domestic currency in a freefallagainst the U.S. dollar. Haitians are also upset by years of government ineptness and mismanagement that has triggered an audit of the PetroCaribe program.
The violence has led many foreign diplomats, visitors and even Haitians with means to flee the country. Haiti’s tourism sector is up in arms over recent travel warnings from the U.S., Canada andFrance that have led to at least one booking company ‒ Expedia ‒ blacklisting the country’s two international airports and hotels as illegal.
People seeking to book flights and hotel rooms on Expedia and subsidiaries Travelocity, Orbitz, Hotwire and CheapTickets are being blocked from doing so following the protests. International carriers like American, Spirit and JetBlue kept flying. But Expedia didn’t seem to care.
“This airport is not a legal airport to book,” read the Expedia. com flight booking page for Port-au-Prince, Haiti and Cap-Haitien airports through the Presidents’ Day weekend. On Tuesday, the site switched the language to, “We could not find any airports that match your search.”
The switch came after Haitians took to social media demanding to know how can an airport be “illegal,” and after the country’s tourism association met on Tuesday over the language.
The block, said an Expedia spokesperson, is linked to the State Department Level Four travel warning. But hoteliers and others in Haiti’s tourism sector say this is the last thing the country needs.
“We already have a dagger in our belly and Expedia just took that dagger and turned it,” said Jean Lionel Pressoir, a restauranteur who runs Tour Haiti, a travel and logistic service that receives visitors. “It’s going to take us so many years to recover from this.”
Pressoir said in recent days he’s received cancellations all the way to August. Meanwhile, his museum restaurant, located inside the Musée du Panthéon National in downtown Port-au-Prince, went from receiving 70 to 80 guests a day to just two takeout orders on Monday, its first full day of operations since protests began rocking the country.
“You cannot pay your cook at that level…You cannot imagine how much this is hurting,” he said.
Staff laid off
At the Karibe hotel, where tourists and foreign diplomats just a few weeks ago crowded the expansive grounds to attend the Port-au-Prince International Jazz Festival, the scene is bleak. Only four of the hotel’s 174 rooms were occupied earlier in the week. The hotel has since laid off half of its staff because of cancellations, said owner Richard Buteau.
“Putting Haiti next to Afghanistan, Syria, countries that are in war, I think it’s unfair,” Buteau said of the travel warnings. “It’s like putting an embargo on Haiti.”
Buteau said in his 33 years working in Haiti’s tourism sector, business is the worst it’s ever been. Even workers outside of tourism are affected.
“It’s the agricultural products that were coming to the hotel that cannot come anymore,” he said. “It’s all the employees that have all of their families depending on their revenues at the end of the month and now we’re going to have to let some of them go.
“This is killing the economy. This is killing the people, it’s really unfair,” added Buteau. “It’s really not justified and it has to be revised ASAP because Haiti hasn’t done any wrong to anybody to deserve that.”
Worked hard to recover
Since the devastating 2010 earthquake, Haitians have worked hard to put the country back on the tourism map. Several luxury hotels have opened, including the country’s first Marriott, and El Rancho, which is part of the Spanish hotel chain NH Hotels.
But now, as the crisis subsides and normal operations resume in offices and on public transportation, hotel lobbies are virtually empty.
Some bookings available
Some travel companies are still booking Haiti trips. CheapOAiris still offering bookings in Haiti. American Airlines continues to operate its three daily flights to Port-au-Prince and one daily flight to Cap-Haïtien from Miami, an airline spokesperson confirmed.
Airbnb, the short-term rental site, continues to take bookings and is also offering fee-free cancellations or changes through its extenuating circumstances policy. But the travel warnings and website blackouts will be hard to overcome, said Pressoir, who had to let go seven employees on Monday.
“Last year, things were looking so good that we at Tour Haiti purchased seven new buses,” he said. “Now I don’t know what to do, that is the true reality. Decameron is closed. Moulin Sur Mer is closed. Hotels in Petionville are not getting people.
“It’s easy to lose but recuperating, rebuilding is so difficult, especially in tourism. I don’t know what to say. It’s like one of the worst hurricanes ever has fallen on us,” he said.
Prime Minister Ceant was named by Haiti President Jovenel Moise to lead the government five months ago. The president noted his dissatisfaction with his prime minister during his own address to the country, saying that since Ceant became prime minister, the situation has worsened.
Ceant focused on the need for Haitians to come together to discuss the country’s problems.
“It’s been 10 days since children have been unable to go to school, hospitals can’t provide health care, big businesses and small businesses can’t function,” he said. “It’s been 10 days since the government has lost a lot of money. At the same time, the population has suffered a lot. Because of the roadblocks, it cannot find potable water, it can’t eat, it can’t find gas, it can’t get electricity. All of this can take us to deephumanitarian crisis.
“While we are asking for tourists to enter the country, we can’t continue to send negative signals so someone doesn’t want to return to visit us,” he said.
Ceant said Haiti’s problems didn’t start overnight and are rooted in three areas: corruption, inequality and decades of bad governance. He said he and his ministers have been working to address the problems. But the only way out of the crisis, he said, is dialogue.
He listed recent measures that including a 30-percent cut in the prime minister’s budget and curtailing travel, fuel and other perks for ministers.
“We would like to remind the friends of Haiti that what’s happening here is in part the result of their work,” a group of political parties demanding Moise’s resignation and the protests said in a statement. “It’s the failure of a strategy that lies in making decisions on behalf of Haiti behind the Haitian people’s back every time that there is a feud inside the country; the strategy of giving orders to leaders that were installed through shady elections. It’s that formula that has brought this system to life that excludes the masses.”
Georges Sassine, president of the Association of Haitian Industries, a grouping of Haiti’s manufacturing companies, said something needs to be done.
“If we let the streets decide, we are going to all be carried away like a tsunami wave,” he said.