MILOT, Haiti – The tour guides were waiting with bony, undersized horses to carry travelers to Haiti’s historic Citadelle Laferriere, one of the most impressive mountaintop fortresses in the world.
The tourism minister was waiting, bound proposals in hand, for an international donors conference to secure money to turn the impoverished country into the Caribbean’s next vacation hotspot.
Then violent street protests in April over soaring food costs killed at least seven and injured hundreds. Travel warnings grew more dire.
”Whatever happens in Port-au-Prince has an immediate impact on the image of Haiti as a vacation destination,” said former Tourism Minister Patrick Delatour, who lost his job when the Senate fired Prime Minister Jacques Edouard Alexis over the food riots.
It may seem like an odd dream in a place where Royal Caribbean cruise ships dock at a locked and guarded beach compound, and kidnappings of foreigners run rampant. But many Haitians see tourism as the country’s way out of crisis.
Other than the 500,000 cruise passengers who visit the Royal Caribbean peninsula — billed until recently as ”Labadee, Hispaniola” — few venture into Haiti, even from the Dominican Republic next door.
Meanwhile its Spanish-speaking neighbor brings in more than $3.5 billion in revenues and millions of visitors to sprawling resorts and designer golf courses, according to the U.N. World Tourism Organization.
Jamaica claims $2 billion from tourism each year despite high crime rates. Cuba pulls in similar tourist revenue, even with a U.S. embargo.
But Haiti’s meager tourism industry earned less than 5 percent of that in 2005, according to the most recent available U.N. data.
Delatour and others believe the key is keeping people away from the rancor of the capital and bringing them to the relatively tranquil countryside.
”Port-au-Prince is hell,” said mango exporter Jean M. Buteau, touting the well-preserved forts and one of the Caribbean’s largest caves along the pristine southern coastline near the city of Les Cayes. “Haiti is outside of Port-au-Prince, and I love it … there are still places to be discovered.”
It wasn’t always this bleak. Tourism was a pillar of the Haitian economy under the oppressive but stable dictatorships of Francois and Jean-Claude Duvalier, with hundreds of thousands drawn each year to its tropical vistas and voodoo rhythms.
Then came the 1980s, the AIDS epidemic and political upheaval. Pristine beaches emptied. Historic hotels once frequented by Mick Jagger and Jackie Onassis fell into disrepair.
Chaos continued periodically up to President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s ouster in a bloody 2004 rebellion. More than 140 American citizens have been kidnapped since 2005, the U.S. embassy says, though most are not tourists. The country has averaged one abduction a day so far this year, including a Canadian intern seized outside her home this month.
But just before the April food riots, it looked as if Haiti could be on the verge of a tourism comeback. With a 9,000-member U.N. peacekeeping force patrolling the country, the Organization of American States rolled out $233,000 last year to train hotel, restaurant and tour-company workers.
A Haitian-American state lawmaker began studying how countries known for conflict, including Ireland and Israel, succeeded in promoting tourism.
Royal Caribbean announced plans in February for a $25 million pier expansion to take in larger ships.
And Delatour crafted a $270 million tourism plan, much of it focused on improving access to the vast Citadelle, a 108,000-square-foot stone structure with five-story walls and a stockpile of cannonballs that was hiked by a young Franklin D. Roosevelt and inspired a Harry Belafonte song.
The Western Hemisphere’s largest fortress, it was built atop a 3,000-foot mountain in the tumultuous years after Haiti broke from France in an 1804 slave revolt and became a symbol of triumph over bondage for descendants of African slaves everywhere.
The trip there is a two-hour crawl over unpaved roads and through garbage-strewn, traffic-clogged streets of Cap-Haitien. The final ascent, a steep cobblestone path, is traversed on foot or on undersized horses beaten with sticks by local guides.
The reward is a spectacular view of the surrounding valley, several towns and the sea, plus walks along ramparts every bit as impressive as Puerto Rico’s El Morro castle.
Delatour’s plan would expand the airport at nearby Cap-Haitien and build new local highways from the Dominican border so visitors could avoid the capital.
Royal Caribbean has taken interest. The fortress could be ”one of the No. 1 things to see in Haiti if not the Caribbean,” said John Weis, the cruise line’s private destinations director. “I’ve been there. It’s incredible.”
That future seems more remote now. Riots also broke out in quiet southern peninsula towns officials have targeted for tourism development, and bandits and protesters attacked a food warehouse in Cap-Haitien.
The country is in its second month without a prime minister, with a cabinet of lame-duck ministers stripped of their authority by parliament.
The donors conference, canceled after the prime minister and cabinet were dismissed, has yet to be rescheduled.
Though there is no guarantee he will be included in the new cabinet, Delatour is determined to keep working and is confident that Haiti has a future in tourism.
”We have been out of the market too long,” he said.