MONTROUIS – The Club Indigo beach resort north of the capital Port au Prince was crowded with United Nations peacekeepers, aid workers, diplomats and missionaries on a recent Sunday. But the only real tourists seemed to be Anne Fournier and her husband. The young couple from Montreal is a rarity in this afflicted country. Crime, health scares, hurricanes and the monster earthquake of January 2010 have badly damaged the tourism that was once a mainstay of the economy, attracting the likes of Mick Jagger and Jackie Onassis.
Now the government is pinning its hopes on a surge of private investment in hotels and resorts, plus a Venezuelan-financed $13.2 million airport and new infrastructure on the Ile-a-Vache and an $8 million development of the historic coastal town of Jacmel.
The Tourism Ministry’s budget has more than doubled. Under the previous government, it was $2 million plus a $1 million loan from Venezuela’s PetroCaribe oil fund. Now it’s $4.7 million and Petrocaribe is paying $27 million to finance development on projects that include Ile-a-Vache and in Jacmel.
The government says it has signed off on 15-year tax breaks and exemptions from import duties for 11 hotel and resort projects costing a total of $160 million, with nearly $100 million more in the pipeline or completed. It’s also training a force of 53 “tourism police officers” who will learn Spanish and English and be trained in first aid and customer service.
While many Haitians welcome anything that can create jobs, some worry that the country isn’t ready for a tourist invasion. For one thing, the Tourism Ministry says it has only 3,200 hotel rooms. For another, medical services are woefully lacking, a point underscored in U.S. and Canadian travel advisories.
The government hopes to double the number of hotel rooms in two years but critics say the infrastructure must first be improved.
Sen. Francois Anick Joseph said the country needs paved roads, drinking water and reliable electricity. “There are a lot of things that need to be done before we can attract tourists,” he said in a telephone interview.
Tourism Minister Stephanie Villedrouin said Haiti has to stand on its own feet. “If we want to be a sovereign country, if we don’t want to depend on other countries, we need to figure out ourselves how to move forward and how to get revenue and tourism must be no.1 on the list.” Each hotel room built creates two jobs and four indirect jobs, she said.
Officials say the tourism push will create more than 1,600 direct jobs and 6,500 indirect jobs. Tourism generated $200 million last year, Villedrouin said. The country’s entire budget is $3 billion.
Haiti was once a haunt of the rich and famous who came in search of late-night Vodun ceremonies and rum-fueled revelry. But an AIDS scare in the early 1980s sent the tourists packing and years of political instability continued to keep them away. Officials say the 2010 earthquake killed 316,000 people and a cholera outbreak nine months later took more than 7,750 lives.
Last year, the U.S. State Department designated Haiti a “major drug trafficking country.”
Meanwhile, the country faces tough competition from Caribbean neighbors offering cheaper holiday deals. Today, the only mass tourism — 600,000 a year, according to Villedrouin — comes from cruise ships stopping at Labadie on the north coast, where passengers can frolic for a few hours in a fenced-in resort. Villedrouin couldn’t say how many other tourists came on longer stays last year.
Air Transat, a Canadian charter carrier, flies weekly between Montreal and Port-au-Prince.
Its officials said the carrier has brought in 120 tourists this year on holiday packages costing $1,399 to $1,600.
At the beach in the town of Montrouis 38 miles north of the capital, Fournier sipped juice from a coconut while relaxing with her husband, Sadrack Duclair, under the straw-hut canopy. Earlier, they hired a car and driver to show them around.
“I knew coming here that it was going to be a big adventure,” said 28-year-old Duclair, who left Haiti as a child and last visited in 1999. “I think it began at the airport, the first day. After that I was like, ‘Haiti!’”
Fournier, 26, said the tourist shortage has its advantages.
“You can tell that the tourism isn’t very developed yet, and that’s the big charm of it,” she said. “Everything is an adventure here.”
*Pictured above is Haiti's Tourism Minister Stephanie Villedrouin.