By Cameran Clayton
The government in Haiti is betting on increased tourism to bolster its economy despite the country’s on-going political instability and devastating social conditions.
Tourism development is a central pillar of the country’s post-earthquake reconstruction strategy, with government officials eager to remind foreign investors and potential tourists that “Haiti is open for business.” Haiti was once considered one of the most fashionable vacation destinations in the Caribbean, and officials hope to restore Haiti’s reputation as a vacation hotspot.
In many ways, the government’s plan makes sense. Haiti has many natural assets, including pristine beaches alongside mountainous terrains, colonial architecture and historical attractions, as well as a vibrant culture and arts scene.
Hotels and restaurants are also using local food and materials, and the country’s own hospitality school prepares Haitians for work in the service sector. Hotel giant Marriott considers its new 174-room mega hotel in Haiti its “biggest social responsibility project.”
Unfortunately, revitalizing tourism development in Haiti has not been easy. The damage caused by the 2010 earthquake has made demonstrating land ownership notoriously difficult. Many titles simply disappeared in the wreckage. This problem is further exacerbated by the country’s drastically overburdened, some say corrupt, judicial system.
Land tenure deficiencies in Haiti also affect residents, as reports of illegal seizures and forceful evictions surface regularly, and citizens often do not have access to due process if their lands are seized illegally. Some residents question whether the government’s tourism development is worth this appropriation.
For example, there are tensions in Île-à-Vache, a coastal village where the government is channeling some of its tourism development. The government is planning for the tiny island to host a new airport, a slew of hotels and a massive golf course. Last year, bulldozers began destroying people’s farmland as part of the project.
“We had so many plants — potato, corn, beans, all kinds of crops,” said Cyprise Gislene, 32, a mother of three and long-time resident of Île-à-Vache. “Now we have nothing to live from. They destroyed my life,” she said. “Tourism is good for them, but not for us. It doesn’t create jobs for us — it just takes our land.”
These problems are just the beginning. In addition to the country’s land issues and accusations of government misconduct, much of Haiti’s population remains housed in “tent-cities,” while the country as a whole remains, in many ways, an international protectorate. Despite nearly six years of reconstruction efforts, Haiti remains dependent on foreign aid and the presence of U.N. peacekeepers.
To compound matters, Haiti has been without a functioning government since January 2015, and the president is currently ruling by decree. More recently, there has been a resurgence in violence, intimidation and social unrest as the country fumbles its way through yet another deeply flawed electoral process.
Through all this, the government remains steadfast in its efforts to boost tourism. There are signs that its efforts are working. Last year, JetBlue began non-stop flights to Haiti, and earlier this year it announced plans to expand its service routes. In late 2014, the government reported a 21 percent increase in arrivals for the year, and tourism remains the country’s largest industry. But with so many unresolved issues, it remains to be seen whether tourism can sustain Haiti. Until the country’s more immediate problems are addressed, hope for a vibrant tourism sector will remain tenuous.
Photo 1 Credit: Courtesy Steve Bennett/UncommonCaribbean.com.
Photo 2 Credit: International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Society; Photo: IFRC/Eric Quintero (p-HTI0141).