Tourism at the top of Haiti’s agenda; millions of foreign direct investment in tourism industry; employment for locals; repercussions of new development projects.
‘Welcome to Haiti. Haiti is full of beautiful beaches, beautiful waterfalls and magnificent caves. The country also offers a beautiful tropical sun and gigantic mountains. The soul of the Caribbean is alive in the brilliant works of Haitian artists and craftsmen. Haiti is a mosaic, enriched by contributions from other cultures Indian, African and European inherited from the colonial system. Creativity inhabits Haitian art whether through painting, music, dance and crafts.’ Ministry of Tourism, Haiti.
Over the past five years there has been a paradigm shift in Haiti’s developmental processes with tourism very much at the top of the agenda. Tourism is on the rise; there was a 20 percent increase in the number of long-stay visitors to the island between 2013 and 2014, according to the World Bank.
The Michel Martelly administration and the Ministry of Tourism are on a mission to rebrand Haiti. Visitors are encouraged to “live the Haitian experience” in the new marketing campaign. The campaign seeks to attract high-end visitors whose foreign tourist dollars are hoped to lift Haiti out of aid-dependent “Republic of non-governmental organisations” status and restore its former glory as the “Pearl of the Antilles”.
Haiti was a tropical idyll in the 1950s, known as the “golden era” due to its booming tourism. However, during the repressive Francois Duvalier regime and throughout the 1980s through to the early 2000s, recreational tourism seemed to all but vanish from the island nation.
Today, Stéphanie Villedrouin, Haiti’s dynamic Minister for Tourism and Creative Industries is working hard to put Haiti back on the tourism map, pitching it as a premier Caribbean destination. Villedrouin’s team has been promoting Haiti in a variety of international trade shows, with the key target audience being the United States of America given its proximity and large Haitian diaspora.
This is an exciting time for foreign donors and investors. Direct investment is flowing from the likes of Marriott International and Digicel, the Caribbean telecoms provider, who formed a partnership to build the first ever Marriott hotel in Turgeau, just outside the capital, Port-au-Prince earlier this year. The $48m hotel has generated over 200 jobs for local Haitians who comprise 99% of the staff. The grand opening ceremony of Marriott Haiti included prominent business figures, former President of the United States of America, Bill Clinton, and actor Sean Penn.
The Marriott is not the only American Hotel to appear in Haiti. Foreign direct investment – $2m to be precise – has gone into building the upmarket Royal Oasis Hotel which was completed in December 2012 in Pétion-Ville, from the Clinton-Bush Haiti Fund. Also, a stone’s throw away is the $15m luxury Best Western which opened in March 2013.
The Haitian Government is building strategic alliances with a number of international companies too. On 1 July the Ministry of Tourism signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with two French Associations: Entrepreneurs du Monde (Entrepreneurs of the World), and Planète Urgence, (Urgent Planet) to expand tourism development projects in the Northern region.
Also, Haiti has maintained strategic partnerships with Royal Caribbean, a cruise line which pays the Haitian Government around $200m annually for the right to exclusively use Labadee, nested in the north-western corner of Hispaniola for tourists to “indulge in private paradise”. In a similar vein, the Haitian Government signed an MoU with Carnival Cruises detailing a $70m investment to build a port on Tortuga island with a view to create 900 jobs for locals.
Additionally, Haiti will be hosting the 12th Caribbean Festival (Carifesta) in August for the first time. The Haitian Government has invested 300m gourdes (approximately $6m) to plan for this festival which is expected to draw in first-time visitors from across the Caribbean and beyond.
Tourism development projects are happening all over Haiti: Île-à-Vache, Jacmel, Cap-Haïtien, the list is ever-growing. But, are the locals really benefiting from these changes? Consider the case of Île-à-Vache. In 2011 Martelly and the then Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe visited the south-western island that was formerly ignored by the government. During that visit development opportunities were identified and a large-scale tourism project put into motion. 1,500 hotels and bungalows are intended to be built along the island’s beaches, an international airport, a golf course, bars and nightclubs comprise part of the development project. But, the islanders’ right to free prior informed consent has been largely ignored. In May 2013 the Government passed a decree which declared Île-à-Vache as “public utility”.
The islanders are prepared to put up a fight. A grassroots group, Collective for Île-à-Vache (KOPI) [Konbit Oganizasyon Peyizan Ilavach] formed in December 2013, has mobilised and organised peaceful protests to voice the concerns of the residents, many of whom are likely to be evicted from their homes. In an attempt to allay residents’ fears of expulsion Villedrouin has deemed it necessary to obtain land “… to develop hotels and create jobs. It’s not like we are taking the whole island to build the hotels”.
The peaceful protests have ended up in arbitrary arrests: the KOPI’s Vice President, Police officer Jean Mathelnus Lamy, was arrested on February. 21 2015, and moved to the National Penitentiary in Port-au-Prince on 25 February, where he remains without official charges against him.
Damage and destruction is taking root on Île-à-Vache. The Dominican company Ingeniera Estrella responsible for building the road and airport is making its presence felt according to an elderly woman whose house is marked for demolition. She claims the workers enter her yard without notice, coming and going as they please.
Indeed, the concept of “Building back better” in Haiti has its pros and cons. On the one hand, Haiti is taking steps to join its Caribbean neighbours to use tourism as a way to increase economic development and to move away from aid dependency. On the other hand, there are serious concerns as to how the changing face of tourism has implications for many locals who are not reaping the benefits of the contemporary tourist environment gains.
A country with a renowned history and rich cultural patrimony deserves an economic development plan where fair tourism is promoted which supports the wider populace. As the United Nations World Trade Organisation Secretary General Teleb Rifai remarked during his first official visit to Haiti: “The population needs to see the benefits of tourism and be part of the sector’s value chain… it is vital that they realize that tourism can be part of the solution, driving socio-economic development, while protecting and preserving Haiti’s unique cultural and natural heritage”.