Port au Prince, Haiti
A new study that questions Haiti’s decision to prioritize tourism as a part of its development agenda has evoked a mixed response from tourism professionals here.
The assessment, conducted by researchers from the University of Michigan, says that more visitors come to Haiti because they are of Haitian descent and “coming to see family and friends” than for the sort of recreation that draws tourists to Caribbean beach resorts. The study concludes that the Haitian government is “unrealistic” in its current hard-sell of Haiti as a leisure destination, and may be relying too heavily on that as a poverty reduction strategy.
More than 70 percent of Haitians live on less than $2 a day. Since the 2010 earthquake, it’s more common to see missionaries and aid workers here than beach-bound vacationers.
Haiti’s tourism minister Stephanie Villedrouin says she rejects the idea that travel that focuses on volunteering for a charitable cause is more suitable for Haiti than a recreation-focused tourism industry.
Two tourism training institutes opened recently with support from the Haitian government, which is also developing an eco-friendly resort on an island, Île á Vache.
Tourism “will create jobs, directly and indirectly,” says Ms. Villedrouin. “Though it will take time,” tourism has the potential to change Haiti’s prospects.
Jacqualine Labrom, who runs the tourism company Voyages Lumière, questions the University of Michigan study, which cites interviews with 2,231 tourists and 390 tourism professionals. “They didn’t find me,” she says, “and Voyages Lumiere has been around for 15 years, looking after ‘real’ tourists, who are coming in purely to see the country and get to know Haiti.”
Ms. Labrom says tourists are drawn to Haiti’s “wonderful beaches and beautiful mountains as well as the most magnificent fort, which is the only fort in the whole of the Caribbean not built by Europeans, but by ex-slaves.”
But Haiti’s more recent history of political violence and frequent natural disasters decisively ended its 1970s and 1980s image as the celebrated destination where Bill and Hillary Clinton honeymooned. In 2012, just 950,000 visitors entered Haiti on tourist visas, compared to 4.6 million in the neighboring Dominican Republic.
Jean Lionel Pressoir, who runs Tour Haiti, agrees partially with the new study. Haiti cannot compete with other Caribbean destinations on the bland 3-S (sun, sea, and sand) quotient, he says. However, it can hold its own as an alternative tourism destination because of its unique history and culture.