October 26, 2008

Haïti: Pearl of the Caribbean

Photo of Port Salut, Haïti: Aaron Rose
When you hear the word "Haïti," many of you may think of a country full of poor and starving people or the violence that has plagued the country for several years, but seldom do people associate Haïti with beautiful beaches or ecotourism. Sponsored by the Florida Association for Volunteer Action in the Caribbean and the Americas (FAVACA), I had the opportunity of working in Haïti in September 2007 to assess a tourism development strategy prepared by the Haïtian Ministry of Tourism. Ecotourism, specifically, was the focus of the strategy and I was able to visit Jacmel, Port Salut, and Cap-Haïtien, which the Tourism Ministry designated as key development locations. I am in the process of updating my assessment report, but I will summarize in two blog entries. This entry will focus on my one week visit and the subsequent entry will discuss the challenges of building a viable tourism industry in Haïti and using tourism as a catalyst to developing education, health care, public infrastructure, capacity building in the public sector, environmental protection policies, and a sustainable private sector.

Haïti has some of the world's most beautiful beaches. Surrounded by the Caribbean Sea, Port Salut is a small town in southern Haïti where local Haitians and tourists seek relaxation and tranquility. I stayed at Auberge du Rayon Vert, owned by Mr. Christian Barriere, is located approximately 100 yards from the beach (although not always enforced, it is illegal to construct a dwelling on Haïti's beaches). This small hotel provided me with impeccable service including a full service restaurant (grilled lobster and shrimp!!) and a small bar serving fine French cognac. If you are like me and need to stay connected with the outside world, the hotel, as many of the hotels I visited in Haïti, had wireless Internet access.

Jacmel, the capital of the department of Sud-Est, is known as Haïti's cultural capital. It is a port town with an estimated population of 40,000. Jacmel's unique architecture is similar to what one would find in New Orleans consisting of cast iron pillars and balconies. Jacmel boasts an active art scene with small galleries dotted throughout the city and has hosted successful film and music festivals. I stayed at the very modern Cap Lamandou Hotel, which offers a breathtaking view over the bay and surrounding mountains.

Photo of the Citadel: Aaron Rose
The northern port city of Cap-Haïtien has an estimated population of 130,000 and serves as the capital of Haïti's Nord department. Approximately 12 miles south of Cap-Haïtien will you find the historic Haïtian town of Milot and the remarkable Citadel, which is the largest fortress in the Western Hemisphere built by King Henri Christophe with the hard labor that may have cost up to 20,000 lives lost at the beginning of the 19th century to defend against invaders. Although it took thousands of slaves to construct the Citadel, it serves as a reminder of Haïti's long history of a nation created by free slaves on January 1, 1804, making Haïti the second oldest democracy in the Western Hemisphere.

Photo: Royal Caribbean International
Just a few miles west of Cap-Haïtien is Labadee®, Royal Caribbean's Port of Call, which provides a private oasis for visitors to experience Haïti's natural beauty. I was impressed with the services Royal Caribbean offers in Labadee® providing parasailing rides, kayak tours of the surrounding water, and the chance to purchase gifts from local merchants. Haïti's tourism strategy calls for the development of another Port of Call in Jacmel. As of October 25, 2008, Royal Caribbean is the only major cruise line making a Port of Call in Haïti.

Regarding security in Haïti, I felt safe traveling around the country, but there is a strong presence that security is very fragile. Roads throughout most of the country are in poor condition as Haïti as very few financial resources to regularly maintain them, but funding from governments like the Republic of China (Taiwan) has been used to construct a new road through Port Salut. I traveled by airplane from Port-au-Prince to Cap-Haïtien, but the airports are in need of vast improvements if Haïti is to welcome visitors from around the world. (I often heard of a development plan to modernize the airport in Cap-Haïtien, but no one could provide me with a timetable to implement this plan.) Similar to most markets, the cost of energy (fuel) is high, which creates it own challenges in tourism development, and electricity is unreliable and often absent except through diesel generators.

Even with the high level of poverty prevalent throughout the country, Haïti has the potential to building a vibrant tourism industry focusing on its unique culture, history, and environment. Given the myriad of development challenges Haïtians face, however, tourism should serve as a catalyst to developing education, health care, public infrastructure, and capacity building in the public sector. With the right strategy and implementation drivers, Haïti could be the Pearl of the Caribbean.

Aaron Rose is a board member, corporate advisor, and co-founder of great companies. He also serves as the editor of GT Perspectives, an online forum focused on turning perspective into opportunity.

1 comment:

  1. How would you advise those interested in investing in Haiti to get started? Other than tourism, are there sectors that are ripe for investment?