With flaming barricades and widespread looting, 10 days of street violence in Haiti have all but buried a tourism industry that managed to resurrect itself after a devastating earthquake in 2010.
Ugly, violent footage beamed around the world has again sent the message that this impoverished Caribbean country is politically unstable and no place to go on vacation.
The final straw was the helicopter evacuation last week of 100-odd Canadian tourists trapped as angry protesters demanded the resignation of the president, whom they accuse of corruption.
“We have been through 12 days of hell. We managed the crisis but today we are suffering from the aftershocks,” said Tourism Minister Marie-Christine Stephenson.
– Blacklist –
Beside the direct effects of the demonstrations, the United States delivered another crushing blow on February 14 when it urged its citizens not to travel to Haiti, which thus joined a no-go list with war-torn countries like Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan.
The minister said the US travel alert for Haiti was too harsh, calling the riots something that flared up unexpectedly and are now over.
“OK, they lasted 12 days but I am not sure that other Caribbean countries, which have had riots of their own, have been punished as severely and quickly as we have,” said Stephenson.
Overnight, the decision by the US State Department hit the tourism industry hard. Travel web sites simply stopped offering flights to Haiti’s two international airports.
Hotels are reporting cancellation of reservations and many empty rooms.
Officials in the industry have yet to tally up the damage but say that for the second time in less than a year, they will have to lay off workers.
In July of last year, three days of riots over a government attempt to raise fuel prices ruined the summer vacation season for Haiti’s tourism industry.
It is not just hotels that will suffer again, said Beatrice Nadal-Mevs, president of the Haitian Tourism Association.
“This is going to affect everyday people because these are direct jobs that are going to be lost and supply chains will be threatened: farming, fishing, crafts, transport,” Nadal-Mevs said.
– Mardi Gras cancelled –
With the opposition planning more demonstrations to seek the resignation of President Jovenel Moise, the sector got yet more bad news with word that Carnival celebrations have been called off in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince.
City Hall said it could not guarantee revelers’ safety.
The festivities, which this year were planned for March 3-5, usually draw many Haitians living abroad and fleeing the winter cold in Canada and the eastern US.
Another major Carnival celebration is scheduled to take place in the city of Gonaives, but the government has not said if it will go ahead.
As grim as things are, some foreign tourists have gone ahead with visits to Haiti.
On Wednesday, a group of Australians under police escort visited a square featuring statues of heros of Haiti’s independence from France. Days ago, demonstrators at the same plaza were throwing rocks at police, who responded with volleys of tear gas grenades.
A woman named Carole, who did not want to give her last name, said, “I trust the company we’re traveling with. They not only want to take us but they want to bring us back.”
Kevin McCue, another of the people in the group of 20, said he was glad that their tour operator had not opted for Plan B, which would have meant skipping Haiti and spending the whole week in the neighboring Dominican Republic.
“Tourism is alive and well here. People should come. The more they come, the better they spread some money among people who need it and the better for Haiti,” said McCue.