Stephanie Villedrouin, Haiti’s Minister of Tourism // © 2014 Ministere du Tourisme d'Haiti
Feature image (above): Modernizing the international airport in Cap-Haitien, Haiti, is just one step the country has taken to grow its tourism infrastructure. // © 2014 Steve Bennett
I became enamored of Haiti when briefly visiting the country last year. It was obvious that Haiti was still recovering from the devastation wrought by the earthquake of 2010. Even in the midst of these challenges, the people, the culture and the Creole ambience were captivating. In my eyes, Haiti is a success story waiting to happen.
During my visit, I met with Stephanie Villedrouin, Haiti’s Minister of Tourism. She outlined the country’s ambitious tourism master plan, which was designed to decentralize tourism from its capital of Port-au-Prince and inspire tourists to visit more pristine areas of the country, where they will find more unique opportunities for beach vacations, ecotourism and cultural tourism.
I recently spoke with Villedrouin to discuss the progress the island has made so far on its plan to develop tourism, and what’s in store for the immediate future.
Can you talk a bit about the developments on Haiti’s southern coast?
Thirty years ago, when tourism was booming in Haiti and the country was known as the Pearl of the Antilles, the south coast — the Jacmel area in particular — was known as the Pearl of Haiti. Our current efforts at tourism development in the area aim to recapture and build upon that old spirit.
What kind of advice has Mexico’s National Fund for Tourism Development given Haiti?
In line with recommendations made by our partners in Mexico, we're working toward developing several distinct areas in the south, including Jacmel, Haiti's center of art and culture. We are also working toward developing the pristine white sand beaches of Port-Salut and Cotes-de Fe and Ile-a-Vache, which we envision as an ideal tropical island beach and ecotourism escape.
Our initial focus is on Cotes-de Fer, where we project the development of 1,500 hotel rooms, 1,200 villas, a new international airport and a championship golf course, all within the next three years.
What is the overall vision for developing tourism in Haiti?
The model of developing a series of distinctive tourism areas that we're applying in the south is also being carried out in other parts of the country. In this way, we are creating a well-rounded tourism product offering something for every type of traveler.
For example, Cote de Arcadins is already perfect for beach resort lovers. There are six full-scale beach resorts operating there now, including Club Indigo, which is Haiti's former Club Med property. For history lovers, there's the northern region, where visitors can enjoy Sans-Souci Palace, the Citadelle and the historic town of Milot. In the past year, the area has received more than $1 million in tourism investment, which has been used to upgrade attractions and improve transportation.
The private sector in the area has responded as well, initiating plans to expand existing properties or build new ones. (Editor’s note: Carnival Corp. recently announced plans to build a private port facility on Tortuga, one of the islands that comprise Haiti, located off the northwest coast of Hispaniola. Haiti and the Dominican Republic share the island of Hispaniola.)
Most significantly though, expansion and modernization work on the international airport in Cap-Haitien will be completed this summer. The first flights to the area from Miami on American Airlines are scheduled to start in October.
The last time I was in Haiti, there was some discussion about marketing Haiti and the Dominican Republic as a dual destination. Has that idea received any traction?
Yes. Just a few weeks ago, we signed a memorandum of understanding with our tourism counterparts in the Dominican Republic to work together to promote both countries as a single destination. This was followed up with meetings with travel agencies and tour operators in Puerto Plata earlier this month to help push this effort along. As a next step, we'll open a new promotional office in Santo Domingo later this summer.
Is Haiti ready for mainstream tourism? Or is it more geared toward the experienced traveler familiar with the challenges presented by infrastructure problems, safety issues, differences in culture and the realities of poverty?
Haiti is, at this present time, very much open for tourism business. Aside from the cruise market though, which continues to perform very well, the product still has significant strides to make in order to appeal to the mass market. Change is coming, as we've demonstrated in the north, Cote de Arcadins and elsewhere.
At the same time, we've initiated discussions with U.S. tour operators to develop escorted tour options that will make Haiti more accessible in the short-term.
How would you advise U.S. travel agents to sell Haiti? What should they tell their clients?
Travel agents should know that not everything they've heard about Haiti is true. Yes, we've endured our share of hardships, but in many more ways than they might imagine, we're not that much different than our Caribbean neighbors. Travel agents with clients who are culturally curious, love art and history, seek adventure and desire to walk miles of pristine beaches never seen by most Americans will love Haiti.
Will Haiti be sponsoring fams for travel agents from the U.S.?
Yes, absolutely. We will make formal announcements on upcoming travel agent fam trips in the coming weeks. Haiti, more so than most places, must really be seen and experienced to be believed and sold effectively. We look forward to partnering with travel agents to make the real Haiti known to the world.