Haiti sees big tourism investment flows... But resort stay a tough sell
The Club Indigo beach resort north of the Haiti capital was crowded with United Nations peacekeepers, aid workers, diplomats and missionaries on a recent Sunday.
But the only real, live tourists seemed to be Anne Fournier and her husband.
The young couple from Montreal is a rarity in this afflicted country. Crime, health scares, hurricanes and the monster earthquake of January 2010 have badly damaged the tourism industry that was once a mainstay of the Haitian economy, attracting the likes of Mick Jagger and Jackie Onassis.
Now the government is pinning its hopes on a surge of private investment in hotels and resorts, plus a Venezuelan-financed US$13.2-million airport and new infrastructure on the southern island of Ile-a-Vache, and an US$8-million development of the historic coastal town of Jacmel.
The tourism ministry's budget has more than doubled. Under the previous government, it was US$2 million plus a US$1-million loan from Venezuela's PetroCaribe oil fund. Now it's US$4.7 million, and PetroCaribe is paying US$27 million to finance development on projects that include Ile-a-Vache and in Jacmel.
It says it has signed off on 15-year tax breaks and exemptions from import duties for 11 hotel and resort projects costing a total of US$160 million, with nearly US$100 million more in the pipeline or completed.
It's also training a force of 53 "tourism police officers" who will learn Spanish and English and be trained in first aid and customer service.
While many in Haiti welcome anything that can create jobs, some worry that the country isn't ready for a tourist invasion. For one thing, the tourism ministry says it has only 3,200 hotel rooms. For another, medical services are woefully lacking, a point underscored in US and Canadian travel advisories.
The government hopes to double the number of hotel rooms in two years. But the critics say Haiti first has to improve its infrastructure.
Senator François Anick Joseph said the country needs paved roads, drinking water and reliable electricity. "There are a lot of things that need to be done before we can attract tourists," he said in a telephone interview.
Tourism Minister Stephanie Villedrouin says Haiti has to stand on its own feet. "If we want to be a sovereign country, if we don't want to depend on other countries, we need to figure out ourselves how to move forward and how to get revenue, and tourism must be No. 1 on the list."
Each hotel room built creates two jobs and four indirect jobs, she said.
Officials say the tourism push will create more than 1,600 direct jobs and 6,500 indirect jobs. Tourism generated US$200 million last year, Villedrouin said.
The country's entire budget is US$3 billion.
Meanwhile, the country faces tough competition from Caribbean neighbours offering cheaper holiday deals.
Today, the only mass tourism — 600,000 a year, according to Villedrouin — comes from cruise ships stopping at Labadie on the north coast, where passengers can frolic for a few hours in a fenced-in resort.
Villedrouin couldn't say how many other tourists came on longer stays last year.
Air Transat, a Canadian charter carrier, flies weekly between Montreal and Port-au-Prince, and says it has brought in 120 tourists this year on holiday packages in Haiti costing US$1,399 to US$1,600.
At the beach in the town of Montrouis, 60 kilometres (38 miles) north of the capital, Anne Fournier sipped juice from a coconut while relaxing with her husband, Sadrack Duclair, under the straw-hut canopy.
Earlier, they had hired a car and driver to show them around.
"I knew coming here that it was going to be a big adventure," said 28-year-old Duclair, who left Haiti as a child and last visited in 1999. "I think it began at the airport, the first day. After that I was like, Haiti!"
Fournier, 26, said the tourist shortage has its advantages.
"You can tell that tourism isn't very developed yet, and that's the big charm of it," she said. "Everything is an adventure here."