(eTN) – Though the second largest Caribbean island, second only to Cuba, the Republic of Haiti, located on the western side of the island of Hispaniola, is struggling to revive tourism. The island is on a mission to promote alternative tourism, a responsible form of travel aimed at cultural exchange and reasserting the value of historical and environmental heritage, achieved in part through domestic consumption, generating a new economic evolution process.
According to the World Tourism and Travel Council, Haiti’s travel and tourism economy GDP growth from 2008 to 2017 is expected at 1 percent annualized growth, ranking it the 21st island in the entire Caribbean. Tourism needs back-up and a much-needed shot-in-the-arm financing to have the product fully grounded.
“It’s been unfortunate that in the last 20 years our country has suffered tremendously due to political instability. However in the last two years, the country’s back on its feet,” said Pierre Chauvet, president of Agence Citadelle S.A., during the last Caribbean Marketplace held in Nassau, Bahamas. The agency provides receptive travel services to Haiti for more than 60 years.
Haiti has a long history in the Caribbean as a destination back in 1949. The tourism industry can be traced back to the time Haiti celebrated Port-au-Prince’s bicentennial anniversary in 1949, the year when President Dumarsais Estime’s government undertook many large-scale developments. An entirely new neighborhood was built along the seaside where the World Fair was held in honor of the capital’s bicentennial. Port-au-Prince was at the forefront of progress in the Caribbean, as well as a major turning point in its evolution.
Later however, Haiti experienced tougher times from the second half of the 20th century. It saw the dawn of a demographic boost, which pushed back Port-au-Prince’s geographical limits. The city continued to plunge deeper into anarchy, growing out of control and without proper city planning. From a total of 8 M people, over 2.5 M today live in the city whose aging infrastructure is originally built for only 200,000. A staggering 60,000 newcomers flock to the city every year on the average, making overpopulation a grave concern. Devoid of all urban planning and as consequence of lawlessness and lack of foresight on behalf of the government, neighborhoods around the capital continue to mushroom as slums, growing out of control, making the city totally asphyxiated or congested beyond belief. This city suffered bad or no management whatsoever – slowing down the development of the capital (which acquired 60 percent of the country’s economic activity) and subsequently caused its decline. Poverty, inequality, subhuman destitution, archaic construction, obsolete infrastructure and total lack of security plague the capital.
But the turmoil is over now, according to Chauvet, reason why they’re heavily promoting Haiti as a place for investment, at the same time, for getting back their fair share in the Caribbean tourism.
“Every year, we’ve received air and cruise ship arrivals. We’ve always been a fascinating and unique Caribbean destination, as well as a good complimentary destination to the beach resorts in the region. Even though Haiti has beaches, it’s always been known for its rich history, culture and arts craft,” said Stephanie B. Villedrouin, sales and promotion manager for new mountain resort Ranch Le Montcel.
With a new tourism master plan currently being finalized, Haiti’s beach resorts are being groomed to lure guests. “We don’t only showcase our cultural and historical offers, we offer beach resort areas too,” Chauvet said. “Having been independent since 1804, we have a unique history of emperors, kings and presidents, creating a diversity of heritage sites (like Spanish, French, English and Haitian fortresses all over the island; the Haitian forts actually uniquely situated within the country’s interior rather than along the shoreline). Further our culture is based on voodoo, which is our national religion. It’s a singing and dancing religious act, with symbols represented in our art and drawings. We have 700 voodoo gods which we offer as part of our heritage tourism. Voodoo is at the root of our culture, together with the folkloric dances,” he added.
Tourists can attend a voodoo ceremony, with permission form the oungan or manbo. Or one can order a ritual in honor of a particular Iwa to mark a special occasion, complete with dancers and drummers, and sacrifices – all costed out in the package. Voodoo temples offer treatments and cures for various ailments and issues, such as spells, bad luck, marital or sexual problems, with herbal medicines in tow.
In the past, Haiti had charters from Europe and Canada. “Clearly, we’re back to the FITs as no major tour operator has put us on their brochures; but from 1995 to 2000, we we’re back on the European brochures through 10 day round-trips from the Dominican Republic, across the border and back,” said Chauvet, “until 2001-2002 matters got worst politically. Many operators are confident Haiti will emerge in the Caribbean as a destination in the coming years. Chauvet and Villedrouin hope that despite the negative press, Haiti will be featured more positively with the island’s willingness to recover through press trips and familiarization trips on offer.
Hotels (offering a total inventory of 1200 rooms) are mostly small and family-owned or -managed. Recently in January 2008, Haiti received large groups from Japan and Taiwan; expecting more from the Asian market this year. There are about 250,000 visitors coming yearly, mostly on business, staying 3 to 4 nights while spending $250 nights on shopping or about $100 a night for stays in 3- to 4-star hotels per night.