At first, the fleet of tiny, hand-painted fishing boats, with hundreds of Haitians slamming cooking pans, chanting and playing music, was mistaken for a welcome ceremony. On Jan. 19 Freedom of the Seas’ passengers were about to disembark onto a new $55-million pier and visit Labadee, a Caribbean wonderland of zip-lines, BBQ-buffets and palm-thatched cabanas, hyped as “the ultimate private destination for cruise vacationers.”
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Then they noticed the coast guards and the banners reading “USA Away!” As the ship continued to its next port, Jamaica, the loudspeakers reassured the passengers: this was just a local Haitian matter that had to do with upcoming elections.
Haiti today is far better known for its disasters—man-made and natural—than its beaches. Yet the incident on Jan. 19 was the first of its kind for Royal Caribbean, the only cruise line to operate in the country, since they leased the peninsula that Labadee is built on in 1985. Amidst dictatorships, political turmoil and even 2010’s earthquake, the cruise line stealthily brought millions of visitors here. “There are two Haitis,” explains an aspiring artist from the community, who works 12 hours, seven days a week, handing out towels on the cruise-ship’s pool deck. ”The CNN-Haiti and the Real Haiti.”
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On Jan. 22, Haiti’s presidential elections were abruptly cancelled and postponed indefinitely, just two days before voters were due to go to the polls. It wasn’t the first time: President Michel Martelly, who came to power in 2011 promising to make Haiti “open for business,” has been reluctant to leave office. The latest elections, in October, were widely dismissed as rigged, with more than 70 percent of voters abstaining. As thousands of disillusioned citizens return to the streets, burning tires, blowing rara-horns and calling for change, UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon on Jan. 23 called on all political actors to refrain from violence and complete the electoral process without further delay.
For Haiti’s government, desperate to make its country part of the Caribbean tourism market, the renewed political volatility is a disaster. With the U.S. funneling $33 million into Haiti’s disputed elections, the protests around Labadee were reportedly sparked by a request for a fairer share of the $10 per-head port-tax collected by the local government. In the capital of Port-au-Prince, protestors pelted a brand new Marriott Hotel with rocks.
Martelly has hailed tourism as a silver bullet solution to Haiti’s perpetually underperforming economy, which the country’s central bank estimated grew less than 2% in 2015. But remaking Haiti’s tarnished image into a safe holiday destination was never going to be easy. A world away from Port-au-Prince’s riots, Labadee was peaceful, yet a 12-foot fence and armed guards protect it. For decades, the paradise resort was pragmatically marketed as located not in Haiti, but in ‘Hispaniola,’ the less stigmatized name for the island Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic. As media coverage of Haiti slips back into familiar tropes of chaos, corruption and misery, that transformation seems only more distant. “One of biggest challenges was the perception of Haiti worldwide,” says Stephanie Villedrouin, Haiti’s tourism minister. ”And how to change this image.”
Armed with a new hibiscus flower logo, a crowd-sourced slogan (“Experience it!”) and European marketing consultants, Villedrouin embarked on a global crusade in 2012 to ‘rebrand’ Haiti. Designated tourism police has been stationed at major sights, and at Port-au-Prince’s airport, which still lacks a control tower, a weary kompa band greets arrivals.
“This is the new Caribbean,” Villedrouin explains. “This is the authentic Caribbean that we want to showcase to the world.”
Apart from its lovely coastline—shared with tourist favorite Dominican Republic—Haiti has what Villedrouin calls “added value”: vibrant music and arts, Creole cuisine, colonial history and Vodou folklore. Villedrouin hopes to capitalize on it all. Fishing village Cote-de-Fer is being transformed into an all-inclusive resort modeled on Punta Cana; sleepy coast-town Jacmel into a cultural capital of jazz festivals, carnival celebrations and artisanal crafts. Ile-a-Vache, a small island off the Haitian coast is being transformed into a luxury resort, courtesy of Venezuelan oil funds and Chinese investments. “The best way to help Haiti is to come to Haiti: understanding Haiti, spending money in Haiti,” argues Jean Cyril Pressoir, founder of Tour Haiti, a boutique travel operator, specializing in off-the-beaten paths treks and cultural excursions.
Six years after the devastating 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck Haiti, killing over 200 000, the mere idea of Haitian tourism remains almost taboo, says Pressoir. Yet, he’s confident the sector has enormous potential to trigger the economic revival that billions of charity dollars and the world’s second-highest per capita concentration of NGOs have not. “Aid has not aided Haiti,” argues Pressoir, whose business has employed 17 Haitians. “Haiti needs activity and Haiti needs jobs—and I believe right kind of tourism can bring that.”
The aid industry’s post-disaster efforts have been widely criticized as misguided at best, and outrageously corrupt at worst: last year, an investigation unveiled that the Red Cross raised half a billion dollars after the earthquake, yet constructed just six houses.
Yet with political disillusion high in the country, many Haitians suggest that the government’s tourism campaign too is already paved with broken promises. At Ile-a-Vache, the Tourism Ministry’s flagship resort project, residents learned from local newspapers that their 17.3-square-mile island—portrayed as the ‘last untouched corner of the Caribbean’—had been declared “a public utility” earmarked for ‘ecotourism’ resorts, golf courses and an international airport. Hundreds of families have already been displaced. As islanders fear eviction and a marginalized existence in city slums or abroad, an array of new social infrastructure—a clinic, a soup kitchen, a radio station— has so far failed to convince them that any of its benefits will trickle down.
“We feel like our island, our paradise, is being threatened,” says Pierre Kenold Alexis, a teacher, seated under a hibiscus bush in the garden he fears he might lose. “If they are trying to push me out of my community, I will make a fuss. There is nowhere that I can live better than this island.”
Alexis, born and raised on the island and consultant of pacifist resistance group KOPI (Konbit Peyizan Ilavach—Organization of Ile-a-Vache Farmers), pledges to fight on behalf of Ile-a-Vache’s 14,000 residents, mostly farmers and fishermen.
Ever since the developers arrived, islanders report night-and-day surveillance, beatings and police terrorization, with several of KOPI’s members in jail and its president dying in what Alexis calls a “very suspicious” accident.
Despite the fact that continued political unrest threatening years of hard work, Villedrouin remains optimistic that tourism will eventually alleviate give Haiti the boost it desperately needs. “End of the day, politics has nothing to do with it,” Villedrouin explains. “Tourism never interferes with politics.”
Critics argue the opposite—the only obstacle standing between Haiti and a booming tourism industry is the government itself. “To rebrand Haiti and then not hold elections so that people are out in the streets doesn't make any sense,” says Richard Morse, a hotelier and lead singer of mizik rasin house-band R.A.M. “If you as a government really want tourism, you have to play by the book. It’s gotta start at the top.”
As the owner of Port-au-Prince’s iconic Hotel Oloffson, a legendary gothic gingerbread mansion once frequented by jetsetters and rock stars, Morse is one of the harshest opponents of Haiti’s current tourism model. The Oloffson is one of Haiti’s most beloved tourism institutions, yet the hotel has been cut off from electricity for years—according to Morse, because of his condemnation of the incumbent regime.
With the cancelled elections likely to catalyze continued waves of violence across the country—providing the kind of headlines that tend to scare visitors away—Haiti’s nascent hospitality boom risks being over before it started.
Yet Morse, whose hotel has outlived earthquakes and coup d’etats and is confident that as soon as politics change, tourists will return to Haiti en-masse. “The longer that there’s calm in Haiti, the better it is for business,” he says. “If you’ve got peace, people will come – because they haven’t been here yet.”
The reporting and visuals for this article were supported by a grant from the European Journalism Centre.