January 2019 | Tourism in Haiti: from Columbus to oblivion by Arturo García Rosa

Arturo García Rosa
President & Founder, SAHIC

Tourism in Haiti: from Columbus to oblivion

A raw diamond that could change the life of its people.

Some might be encouraged to say that the first tourist to visit Haiti would have been Christopher Columbus, when on December 5, 1492, he arrived in Hispaniola, the island now shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti itself.

Columbus would no longer forget Hispaniola. It was on those coasts where his ship ran aground. That ship was the Santa Maria, which was used to build Fort Christmas.

The inhabitants of those lands, and especially their descendants, would not forget that date either. It was the beginning of the Spanish conquest, the one that in 1697 divided the island in two through the peace treaty of Ryswick. The western part (future Haiti) was held by France, while the eastern part (future Dominican Republic) was held by Spain.

It took a long time for the two sides to become true nations. Haiti became independent in 1804 while the Dominican Republic, part of Haiti at the time, became independent for the first time in 1821. We say for the first time given that the comings and goings took place in a climate of strong instability, which included an occupation of the United States between 1916 and 1924.

A common origin and very different destinies.

It seems incredible but with a common origin, these two countries sharing the same island of 76,200 km2, the second largest island in the Caribbean behind Cuba (almost 110,000 km2), have such a different present. 

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Haiti covers 36% of the surface while Dominican Republic covers the 54%.

Haiti´s current population is about 11.3 million, while that of the Dominican Republic is just over 11 million. Both are located in 2nd and 3rd place in the Caribbean region, behind Cuba which has about 11.5 million inhabitants.

These three countries have something in common regardless of their major differences: they have vast resources for the exploitation of tourism and nature has been really generous with them.

It is true that climatic inclemency and social and political trajectories have had a more or less important impact on each of them, mainly in Haiti, the poorest of the three and one of the poorest countries in the world. Everyone remembers the devastating earthquake that hit the country in January 2010. The earthquake caused 200,000 deaths and left a large part of the country practically in ruins.

Tourism in the three largest Caribbean countries

Leaving their social, political and economic situation aside and focusing on their size and population, we will make some references to the region's three big ones: Cuba, Domincana and Haiti.

In Cuba, 2018 ended with the arrival of nearly 4.7 million tourists, which clearly indicates the impact of the policy change in the USA since the beginning of the Trump administration. This resulted in a significant decline in arrival of those who had become the second market generating demand for the "Queen of the Caribbean" since the opening by Obama. A situation that seems not to change, at least, until the end of the Trump period.

The Dominican Republic closed 2018 with a record number of arrivals of 6.6 million tourists, leading the region.

Today, Haiti receives around 600,000 international tourists per year, almost nothing we could say.

Those golden years in the 50's, when it was known as the "Pearl of the Antilles", are a long way off. At that time, tourists visited the coastal area of Port-au-Prince, rebuilt to allow cruise ship passengers to walk from the docks to the famous cultural attractions. Exclusivity attracted characters such as Truman Capote and Noel Coward to the Oloffson Hotel, a 19th century mansion set in a lush tropical garden, which was even glorified in Graham Greene's well-known novel, "The Comedians".

Haiti's brief tourist boom was wiped out by political ups and downs. However, tourism returned in the 1970s and Haiti again became a fashionable tourist destination attracting some 150,000 international travelers per year. Tourists took Haiti as a new spa surrounded by a certain pomp and glamour. Bill and Hillary Clinton spent their honeymoon there in 1975.

"Vive la différence" was then the official slogan to promote tourism to the country. Proximity to the United States contributed greatly to Haiti's being able to establish itself as a growing tourist destination. 

But that's a thing of the past. It ended in 1986. It is the Dominican Republic that has taken its place today.

Haiti's tourism potential

Apart from the undoubted potential that both the Dominican Republic and Cuba still have to develop, it is worth pointing out that, in the insatiable search for new opportunities, new destinations, new options and the possibility of getting new experiences, Haiti appears as a destination to be taken into account.

And certainly it would be very good for the immense recovery work that this country is carrying out. Tourism could once again be, if not what it used to be, a great new destination in the concert of the great players of the region.

We know the potential of tourism in the development of a country, its transformation power, the power to help reverse the exclusions that for various reasons have been taking place during years of backwardness and poverty, without forgetting the power to exalt the profile and image of its people.

Camila Lavori