Rebuilding Haiti (one vacation at a time)

Photo by M Eriksson under a CC Licence

When Haiti’s Provisional Electoral Council shut down 15 presidential bids for this month’s election, including that of hip-hop star Wyclef Jean, 19 candidates were left standing. The remaining hopefuls hail from all professional ranks, including a professor, an architect, a contractor, a former Prime Minister and First Lady. Even the bad boy of Haitian musical genre kompas who goes by ‘Sweet Micky’ and is known for outlandish costumes, such as a diaper, which he occasionally removes while performing, has thrown his hat in. Although, with the exception of the latter, the contenders mostly belong to the established political élite, they run the ideological gamut and have varying visions on what Haiti needs to get out of hell.

Nevertheless, they all agree on one interesting but seldom explored point: developing tourism.

But…Vacation in Haiti? Now? Yes.

When I asked Leslie Voltaire, UN Special Envoy to Haiti and lead planner for the government’s reconstruction effort, how prominently the travel industry has figured in the reconstruction vision, he answered that while ‘Haitian tourism is not much discussed in the foreign media’ it is ‘at the very base of the new vision for the re-foundation of the country’.

What paradise?

Needless to say, it’s hard to imagine contriving the infrastructure of paradise in Haiti today, where there is continued horror. Less than four per cent of the debris has been cleared since the earthquake, and some 1.6 million people are sleeping on dirt under threadbare tarps. Drinkable water and toilets are hard to come by and one daily meal remains a hustle for most.

But last year Haiti was just starting to leverage the tropical panorama that has lured billions of dollars to its more stable Caribbean neighbours. The Dominican Republic, with whom Haiti shares the island, earns nearly a quarter of its economy from visitors, according to its Ministry of Tourism.

Tapping into that kind of cash would be of spectacular benefit to the country, but thinking about Haiti in the same breath as its greener neighbours was a stretch even before the earthquake levelled the capital and killed quarter of a million people. Now the notion of a holiday on the ravaged island sounds more like an off-colour joke than an enviable itinerary.

Thinking about Haiti in the same breath as its greener neighbours was a stretch even before the earthquake levelled the capital and killed quarter of a million people

Whereas Jamaica, the Turks and Caicos Islands and Puerto Rico have become indelibly inked on the foreign imagination in the idyllic images that grace glossy brochures touting frolicking couples on unspoiled beaches; Haiti instead spools out in the Western mind’s eye like news footage bearing desperate images of boat refugees and famished children, street violence and decades of political instability.

Still, the country’s reconstruction leaders, presidential candidates and international experts across the board insist the travel industry, alongside agricultural and manufacturing development, is critical to recovery. Bill Clinton, the ex-US President turned UN special envoy to Haiti, asserted recently that projects related to tourism are necessary and thus should ‘stay on schedule’, including ‘the airport that needs to be built in the northern part of Haiti’.

Yet when millions don’t have homes, expanding tourist infrastructure can sound skewed. Not to Patrick Delatour, Haiti’s Minister of Tourism, who also served as the leader of the interim reconstruction commission co-chaired by the Prime Minister and President Clinton. Delatour maintains that tourism is the most viable way to stimulate the strangled Haitian economy. With a light breeze coming in his Port-au-Prince office window and the first two buttons of his Guayabera undone, he levelled his gaze and reminded me that ‘this is still the Caribbean’. He added, ‘all our neighbours have made tourism the major source of economic development. Haiti’s the best kept secret of all of them.’

Calling all tourists…

When I asked Delatour who would vacation here, he noted first and foremost the nearly 2 million Haitians living abroad. ‘Then there’s the Europeans,’ whom he said comprise 40 per cent of the Haitian travel marketplace because of their ‘four plus weeks of vacation, their strong currency’ and the fact that they are ‘cultural consumers’ He included ‘the general American public’ who ‘showed great interest in Haiti prior to 1982, when the world falsely declared the country was a promoter of AIDS.’ More specifically, he mentioned African-Americans who will ‘always be very interested in Haiti because of the role that it played in the evolution of the concept of equality of the races’.

Photo by: Trees For The Future under a CC Licence

Naturally, the Haitian government would be mostly at the helm of any tourism development projects. However, as it is now, the legislature, which is the singular entity accountable to every Haitian citizen, receives only 3 per cent of all international aid. Paul Farmer, founder of Partners in Health and a special envoy for the UN, recently urged a congressional board to increase funds sent directly to the leadership, saying foreign policies have tended to sidestep Haiti’s government, further diminishing it and adding to the circumstances which have created a failed state.

The cruise anchors offshore and passengers are whisked to the highly gated resort compound, often without being told they are, in fact, in Haiti

Other countries, like Spain, are seeing the opportunity and stepping in along with private investors, namely the Royal Caribbean, which has been landing in Haiti for nearly 30 years. The cruise line recently plunked $55 million into the nation’s fledgling travel industry. Royal Caribbean has been leasing Labadee, a resort port on the northern coast. Because of state-sponsored watch lists that advised Americans against travelling to Haiti, the company’s advertisements have often refrained from designating ‘Haiti’ as a destination, describing instead an island in its own right on Hispaniola.

The cruise anchors offshore and passengers are whisked to the highly gated resort compound, often without being told they are, in fact, in Haiti. There they sun on pristine beaches, stroll through quaint flea markets, go jet skiing or take in local exotica in the way of traditional Haitian dance performances. For every blithe tourist that lands in Labadee, the Royal Caribbean forks out $10 to the Haitian government. Delatour projects a million visitors by the end of this year, potentially pumping $10 million directly into the economy. That’s considerable money by Haitian GDP standards and is just off the Royal Caribbean deal alone. Something like, ‘Rebuilding Haiti, one garnished beach cocktail at a time.’

A pop-psychological windfall

Apart from Labade, the city of Jacmel was just gaining ground as an international tourist destination before the earthquake inflicted heavy damage there. Still, Jacmel, which has been mostly untouched by political violence, is home to French colonial era architecture, an ecstatic and vibrant carnival, breathtaking beaches and even a film festival.

In the end, people don’t want to think about the suffering of others when they’re on vacation. But they do want to do good and they do want tropical travel and if the two could be combined without a lot of awkward interplay, Haiti’s tourism industry could have the pop-psychological windfall that Americans love most: a win-win.

In a year marked both by sprawling global recession and the irrefutability of climate change, from spills and floods to earthquakes and heatwaves; luxury travel is fast losing its ‘savvy’ flavour of bling and taking on unfashionable notes as a bad eco-habit and a dated flamboyant gesture in a period of chronic joblessness. As such, the bizarre notion of choosing Haiti as a travel destination can be rethought as an offsetting act… The thinking person’s vacation?

The return of Jean and Maurice: how the diaspora will rebuild Haiti

I first met Haitian expats Maurice Bonhomme and Jean Cayemitte in the kitchen at a dinner party, garnishing the tilapia, sweating and whispering intently. The host won the dinner at an auction held at the élite high school where Maurice and Jean spend the first half of their 16-hour workday as security guards, before they clock in the evening shift at an upmarket French restaurant downtown. They did not come out of the kitchen until the end of the meal, scrubbed pots in tow and brows moist with cooking grease. They gave the edentulous server’s smile and left, closing the door soundlessly behind them, taking care not to let in the Chicago cold.

Haitian expats have consistently comprised the largest giving source to Haiti, far exceeding that of any foreign donor before the quake

A few months later, I would be on a plane to Haiti with Maurice and Jean, where, after a week following their every move, I came to learn that there they would neither sweat, nor whisper, nor scrub, nor come and go quietly. Walking with them through the rubble-lined streets of Petit Goave, their rural hometown southwest of Port-au-Prince, one hears people singing out their names like an anthem, a reverent echolocation emitted blind through the nose. ‘Meee-o’ they call Maurice. Jean designated the clearest terms: ‘Here I am somebody. In the States, I am nobody.’ They hadn’t been home since the aftershock on 20 January flattened what little of the town the earthquake had spared the week before. Maurice said communication had remained scattershot. ‘I don’t know what to expect.’

The answer came unforgiving in the ride from Port-au-Prince to Petit Goave, a 40-mile stretch that cannot sheathe the claws of misery. When Maurice and Jean looked out at the shattered moonscape, they didn’t see it so much as gasp through its sunken lung, course through its jet meridians. This was home, erased. We were three months in from the quake and charred corpses said to be thieves no longer line curbsides. In their place now are the living – orphaned, homeless, maimed and desultory. Today, tin revetments upholster sheet-made shacks and in doing so concede the cruellest reality: this is not a passing hell but a purgatory taking root and anchoring its stakes before the rain.

While Maurice and Jean’s reuniting with their ravaged beloved offered a fascinating and complicated narrative bed, their exploits in post-quake Haiti were not fiscally grand. They’ve raised enough money in Chicago to get 500 tents to Petit Goave and are rebuilding the collapsed grammar school they’d been sustaining out of pocket from the US. Of course, there’s the dozens of people for whom they are emotionally indebted to do ‘a little something’ and those are stories within stories... There’s a lot you can’t say to fresh-faced NGO staff and a great deal of those were packing up anyway.

Pulling together

But the cumulative force of the Diaspora is both formidable and underreported. Haitian expats have consistently comprised the largest giving source to Haiti, far exceeding that of any foreign donor before the quake. According to a 2008 World Bank study, émigrés remitted roughly 30 per cent of Haiti’s GDP. This year they’re sending even more. As compassion fatigue peaks and Haiti falls from the headlines, Maurice and Jean’s story comes to bear on the profusion of vows to not abandon Haiti, providing a realistic answer to the question of who would be inclined to take on such a sustained commitment.

Without increased legislative support from both the new and old countries, Haitian fists full of American-earned money alone will not take Haiti off its knees

But this is not a story about idealists and do-gooders. It’s about the two million expatriates whose mothers, lovers and reputations hang in the balance of a ruined birth land and how this socially obligates and emotionally incentivizes them to help. Amid the horror of Haiti, Maurice’s and Jean’s encounter was an elusive one, marked in equal parts by the pleasure and power of being ‘somebody’ and the empathic imagination that grows from being ‘nobody’.

Along the way, they discovered that without increased legislative support from both the new and old countries, Haitian fists full of American-earned money alone will not take Haiti off its knees. The Haitian Diaspora has a critical role in rebuilding their homeland, but crucial also is the need for legislation that supports their expanded role as the economic stability for Haiti during its protracted rebuilding phase.

For more on Elizabeth Lazar’s trip to Haiti with photojournalist Jon Lowenstein, and photos, see

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