Cruise-ship port of Labadie, on Haiti’s northern coast. (Larry Luxner)
Four years after an earthquake killed 300,000 of its people and devastated its capital city, Haiti will outpace all its Caribbean neighbors in terms of economic growth.
Haiti’s GDP will expand by 4.5 percent this year after having grown by 2.8 percent in 2012 and 3.4 percent in 2013, according to the latest IMF projections. Granted, the country is starting from an extremely low base — and its problems have been greatly exacerbated by the 2010 earthquake that ravaged Port-au-Prince — but the rapid growth should nonetheless bode well for Haitian tourism prospects.
As late as the 1960s and 1970s, Haiti was a prime tourist destination for U.S. vacationers, including Bill and Hillary Clinton, who honeymooned there. But recreational tourism to Haiti vanished in the wake of coups in 1991 and 2004, with the vast majority of visitors now consisting of missionaries, aid workers and business executives.
The glaring exception is cruise ship tourism, which is dominated by Miami-based Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. RCCL owns the private island of Labadee, off Haiti’s northern coast. The $55 million resort is fenced off from the rest of Haiti, and RCCL passengers are confined to the resort area without the need to clear customs or immigration. Labadee attracts about 600,000 visitors a year, many arriving on two of the largest ships in Royal Caribbean’s fleet: Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas.
In 2012 about 950,000 people entered Haiti on tourist visas — compared to 4.6 million who visited the neighboring Dominican Republic that same year. Those numbers have been kept low because of poor tourism infrastructure and fears about violence which have been exacerbated by alerts such as the State Department’s Dec. 28, 2012, warning that “travelers arriving in Port-au-Prince on flights from the United States were attacked and robbed shortly after departing the airport,” and that “no one is safe from kidnapping.”
About 3 percent of tourists surveyed by Brazil’s Igarapé Institute, which in June 2013 issued a 23-page report on Haiti’s tourism potential, said they had been victims of crime.
“There is little doubt that the perception of crime and insecurity can impact the tourism industry just as much (or even more) than the reality of crime experienced by tourists. This is a phenomenon experienced in many other parts of the world, and Haiti is no exception,” wrote the study’s authors, Athena R. Kolbe, Keely Brookes and Roberg Muggah. “Respondents were queried about their opinions of security on both arrival and within 24 hours of departure from Haiti. In general, tourists felt safer than they expected while in Haiti, with few respondents describing Haiti as more dangerous after the end of their visit than they had stated in their initial interview.”
Tourists — including many from the Haitian diaspora — are starting to trickle back to Haiti. In December 2012, the 128-room Royal Oasis opened in the Port-au-Prince suburb of Petionville. Rooms at the business-class hotel, which is managed by Occidental Hotels & Resorts, start at $246 per night. Nearby is the Best Western, which opened in March 2013 with rooms starting at $149 a night.
Construction is also continuing on a 145-room full-service Marriott, which is being developed in cooperation with Digicel, a Caribbean mobile phone provider owned by Irish businessman Denis O’Brien. The 175-room hotel — which is getting a $26.5 million loan from the World Bank’s International Finance Corp. — will generate about 200 jobs and will be one of the few sizeable direct foreign investments in Haiti since the earthquake. Digicel, a veteran investor in Haiti, is the sponsor of Turgeau Developments SA, a company established for this project. The hotel is expected to open in 2015.
In December, JetBlue launched three flights a day to Port-au-Prince — one from New York JFK and two from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.
The Haitian government also recently reopened the L’Ecole Hôteliére d’Haiti (EHH), an educational training center supported by the Ministry of Tourism and the Clinton-Bush Haiti Fund. Students at EHH have the option of completing a nine- to 18-month course in tourism-related professions including human resource management, accounting, geography and foreign languages.
Stéphanie Balmir Villedrouin, Haiti’s tourism minister, said her government has been able to “reposition Haiti on the international tourist map,” with tangible results.
“We constantly expand our efforts to reveal the country’s natural and cultural heritage. At all prestigious international events, we spare no opportunity to show off Haiti and make it win acceptance as a tourist destination,” she said. “In 2014, we reiterate the hope that tourism can pave the way to prosperity and contribute to the improvement of the socio-economic living conditions of the Haitian people.”
Larry Luxner is a freelance writer with The Washington Diplomat and former editor of CubaNews. Born and raised in Miami and now based in Israel, 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.