Haiti could best be described as the biblical Job of the Western Hemisphere and has the unfortunate distinction of having practically every form of crisis event visited upon it and its people in recent years. The recent earthquake that has destroyed much of the capital Port au Prince is the greatest calamity in a long line of natural disasters the country has experienced. Coupled with political instability, environmental degradation due to uncontrolled deforestation, chronic poverty, crime and massive social inequalities it seems at first glance that tourism and Haiti are utterly at odds. Yet prior to this week’s earthquake there was some real hope that Haiti, with a great deal of help from the UN and the USA, may be assisted towards recovery.
In March 2009, former US President Bill Clinton was appointed as a special Emissary of the UN Secretary General. Clinton visited Haiti with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to offer US$324 million in rebuilding aid for Haiti over a two-year period. In addition, private investors including George Soros expressed willingness to invest in infrastructure. Tourism development was seen as a fast track to generate employment and build links between Haiti and the wider world. Haiti was gradually being included in Caribbean cruise itineraries and packaged holidays. Under the administration of Prime Minister Michelle Pierre- Louis political leadership was making real progress towards restoring political stability.
The destruction of the Haitian capital has placed all the above developments on hold as Haiti regional neighbors and the wider international community are rightly focused on a massive rescue and relief program to deal with a massive toll of deaths and injuries, widespread destruction of property, infrastructure and disrupted transport and telecommunications. The extent of damage in Haiti parallels the worst experienced during the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
Clearly, in the immediate to short term tourism will be taking a back seat until the immediate rescue; relief and recovery effort can be mobilized and implemented. However, the unprecedented nature of this disaster presents an opportunity for the international tourism community to initiate a plan for tourism to be an integral part of a longer-term restoration of Haiti. A precedent does exist for this. After the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami the UN World Tourism Organization convened an emergency meeting held in Phuket in January 2005 to develop a plan for the recovery of tourism in affected areas and many elements of this plan were adopted by Thailand and Sri Lanka. The situation for Haiti is actually far more challenging than it was for Thailand and Sri Lanka as tourism infrastructure in Haiti prior to the earthquake was at a relatively embryonic level.
However a sustainable tourism master plan for Haiti which would address environmental degradation through reforestation, establishment of infrastructure which would focus on simple, and rapidly built community tourism accommodation and resorts which would involve local people in their construction and management. Transplanting western style tourism infrastructure in Haiti may create some wealth for some Haitians but would not really be a long term and broadly encompassing solution for Haiti. Community tourism would also preset an alternative to the resort style accommodation, which dominates the Caribbean.
The world tourism community has an opportunity, created by the current disaster to help Haiti emerge from its long nightmare. Donations and expressions of support are the right things to do in the short term but tourism is in a position to play a part in Haiti’s longer-term route to recovery.
The author is a senior lecturer in Tourism at the University of Technology –Sydney.