Haiti: Girls on the beach at Ile de la Tortue, off Haiti’s northern coast. (Larry Luxner)
The U.S. State Department travel advisory continues to warn Haiti-bound Americans about violent crime, infectious diseases and substandard medical facilities, but this hasn’t stopped several large tourism projects are proceeding as planned in the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country.
That coincides with JetBlue’s May 9 announcement that it would begin flying to Port-au-Prince with daily nonstop service from New York JFK and twice-daily service from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood to the capital’s Toussaint L’ouverture International Airport. JetBlue’s flights should begin Dec. 5, 2013, subject to government approval.
In late April, the Haitian government announced it would rename the chief airport serving northern Haiti in memory of former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who died of cancer in March.
Cap-Haitïen International Airport — now Hugo Chávez International Airport — has a 17,500-foot runway that was repaved last October with a loan from the Venezuelan government. Following the January 2010 earthquake that killed an estimated 300,000 people, the Chávez government pledged $1.2 billion in aid to Haiti.
Meanwhile, Spain’s Occidental Hotels & Resorts has opened the five-star Royal Oasis in Petionville, a once-upscale suburb of Port-au-Prince that’s now a leading business and commercial hub.
The long-awaited hotel, located on a three-acre property, is earthquake-resistant and hurricane-proof. That’s an important consideration in a country that only three years ago was devastated by a 7.0-magnitude quake which leveled much of Port-au-Prince, killing nearly 300,000 people in the process and leaving more than a million homeless.
The $35 million hotel, financed by local Haitian investors, offers 128 well-appointed rooms on 10 levels, not to mention five bars and restaurants, a lighted tennis court, water polo, aqua aerobics and other luxury amenities including a $1,300-a-night presidential suite.
“The Oasis sends a very clear message that first and foremost the Haitian private sector is investing at home,” said Tourism Minister Stephanie Balmir Villedrouin, speaking at the hotel’s lavish December 2012 inauguration party.
Villedrouin said Haiti will inaugurate 1,200 additional hotel rooms in 2013, as part of 11 hotel projects totaling $161 million that a government commission recently approved. Two other international hotel brands — both within walking distance of the Oasis — are also due to open soon: the 106-room Best Western and a new El Rancho, operated by the Spanish hotel chain NH Hotels, The hotel will start with 72 rooms and 13 apartments and an additional 50 rooms will soon follow, said investor Reginald Boulos.
Separately, Digicel and Marriott International have broken ground on a new $45 million Marriott in the Turgeau area of Port-au-Prince. The 175-room property is expected to open in early 2015, making it the first four-star branded hotel in Haiti. At a ceremony marking the occasion, Arne Sorensen — president and CEO of Marriott — was joined by Villedrouin and Digical Chairman Denis O’Brien.
Digicel is responsible for designing and building the hotel, while Marriott Hotels & Resorts is the operator under a long-term management agreement.
Despite these developments, quake-ravaged Haiti remains a desperately poor country beset by political strife and corruption.
In January, Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe “vehemently protested” the State Department’s decision to issue a revised warning against Americans traveling to Haiti.
“U.S. citizens have been the victims of violent crime, including murder and kidnapping, predominantly in the Port-au-Prince area,” said the advisory. “No one is safe from kidnapping, regardless of occupation, nationality, race, gender or age.”
The warning added that “thousands of U.S. citizens safely visit Haiti each year, but the poor state of Haiti’s emergency response network should be carefully considered when planning travel. Visitors are encouraged to use organizations that have solid infrastructure, evacuation and medical support options in place.”
Canada also told its citizens in early January to “exercise a high degree of caution due to high crime rates,” especially in certain slums around Port-au-Prince.
In his response, Lamothe said “Haiti is one of the safest destinations one can visit,” with a homicide rate of only 6.9 per 100,000 inhabitants. That’s one-fourth the murder rate in the neighboring Dominican Republic, and one-fourth the homicide rate in Jamaica. He added that the Haitian government’s development plan for 2012-16 would boost the size of its national police force by 50 percent, among other things.
Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat and former editor of CubaNews. Born and raised in Miami and based in Bethesda, Md., since 1995, Larry has reported from every country in the Western Hemisphere. His specialty is Latin America and the Middle East, and he’s written more than 2,000 articles for publications ranging from National Journal to Saudi Aramco World. Larry also runs an Internet-based stock photo agency at www.luxner.com.