Hundreds of thousands of Haitians who fled their earthquake-rocked capital are now returning to the rubble and refugee camps, complicating the hopeful plans to build a better Haiti. As you most likely know, the catastrophic 7.0 magnitude earthquake wreaked havoc on this tiny nation ultimately killing approximately 200,000 people and injuring another estimated 300,000.
Devastated Port-au-Prince is home to one third of the country’s 9 million people. Haitians and international officials had hoped to take this opportunity to somehow rebuild this city of ramshackle homes and slums. But the government is largely powerless to keep people from returning. Haiti is the poorest nation in the entire Western Hemisphere.
Hope to Rebuild
A researcher from the University of Manchester’s Global Urban Research Centre, said planners must assume people will return and they must work closely with them in order to rebuild. Instead of thinking people are in the way, planners should think of it as an opportunity to bring people together to fix, not just the bricks and mortar, but the underlying social fabric of Haiti as well.
Before the devastating quake, Haiti was just starting to capitalize on its location and weather to bring in the tourism dollars that nearly all of its neighbors have been enjoying for decades.
New hotels, new attention from international investors, and buzz among travelers who have visited in recent years seemed to signal a renewed interest in Haiti as a destination.
Just a few months ago, Choice Hotels International announced plans for two new hotels in Haiti, making it the first global hotel brand to open an operation on the island. Both hotels are to be located in Haiti’s historic township of Jacmel. And since the earthquake they have reiterated their commitment to Haiti as well as sending supplies and donations.
Other plans include the construction of a road linking Labadee and Haiti’s UNESCO World Heritage Site, a park containing the Citadelle Laferriere fortress and the Sans Souci palace built by Henri Christophe, a leader of the slave revolt that freed Haiti from French rule in 1804.
The mystique of its voodoo culture and sandy beaches made Haiti one of the gems of the Caribbean. Club Med once operated a beach resort here. But successive years of political violence decimated the tourism economy. Grinding poverty has also discouraged tourism. Some 70 percent of Haiti’s 9 million people live on less than $2 a day.
“[Haiti] really is just lovely, and it’s a tragedy that they haven’t been able to leverage that natural beauty into a tourism industry because it definitely deserves it,” said Pauline Frommer, creator of Pauline Frommer’s guidebooks, who visited the country during a cruise last fall.
Haiti’s neighbors in the Caribbean include vacation hot spots like Jamaica, the Turks and Caicos Islands and Puerto Rico. But no glossy brochures tout Haiti’s beaches.
Instead, travelers had stayed away thanks to the images of political unrest, repressive regimes, poverty, and constant civil clashes seen on the news.
Meanwhile, the Dominican Republic — Haiti’s more stable neighbor on the island of Hispaniola — began planning and investing in its tourism industry in the 1970s. According to the Caribbean Tourism Organization, almost 4 million people visited the Dominican Republic in 2008.
President Clinton, who was named a United Nations special envoy to Haiti last spring, visited the country in October to promote local tourism and told investors it was the right time to make Haiti “an alluring tourist destination.”
Last year, Haiti also struck a deal with Venezuela to build a second international airport in Cap-Haitien, Haiti’s second-largest city, Reuters reported.
Lonely Planet has even called Haiti one of the most exciting countries in the world in which to travel.
Right now, the biggest boon to Haiti’s tourism has been the Royal Caribbean Cruise Ship that stops at Labadee peninsula, about 100 miles from Port-au-Prince, for the day. Of Haiti’s 800,000 visitors last year, 500,000 were ferried in by Royal Caribbean.
The company has spent $50 million developing the area, making it Haiti’s biggest foreign direct investor, said Adam Goldstein, president and CEO of Royal Caribbean International, in an interview with NPR.
But critics say Labadee has little to do with local culture. Some people may not even be aware they are in Haiti when they visit what the cruise line touts as “Royal Caribbean’s private paradise,” an enclosed beach area surrounded by a high fence.
- The American Red Cross is one of the most widely known organizations working in Haiti. They accept online donations, help volunteers arrange to give time or other support, and can accept $10 donations, charged to your cell phone bill, by texting HAITI to 90999.
- UNICEF and Doctors Without Borders, two other groups showing up frequently in calls for help, have set up sites for their Haiti efforts.
- Haitian-born musician Wyclef Jean has harnessed Twitter to gather support for his Yele Haiti Earthquake Fund, which also offers $5 text message donations.
I personally donated to Doctors without Borders a few weeks ago. If you have done something to help, please tell us about it in the comments. Hopefully, all the outpouring of support from citizens around the world will make a difference and someday we will be enjoying the culture, music, food, and beaches of beautiful Haiti.