As Haiti moves from emergency aid to the long-term task of rebuilding homes and communities, the equation as regards tourism has changed somewhat. There are urgent choices to be made – by international travel companies, aid organizations and tourism officials in Haiti.
One company which has made the right choice is Choice Hotels & Resorts. One day before the earthquake hit Haiti on Jan 12, Choice announced plans to open two properties in the Southern coastal town of Jacmel – a 32-room Comfort Inn hotel and a 120-room Ascend Collection member hotel.
The Comfort Inn project is an existing hotel which is being converted. Choice has sent relief supplies directly to the property, which is still standing and providing shelter to guests and local families who lost their homes in the earthquake.
Brian Parker, VP emerging markets and new business development for Choice Hotels, says that the quake may set back timetables, but Choice Hotels still stands by its committment to Haiti and will be opening both properties.
But it doesn’t always work out as nicely as this. Take, for example, the case of Cap-Haïtien, Haiti’s second largest city on the north coast. Before the quake, Cap-Haïtien’s airport was supposed to get a $30m upgrade to recieve international flights. Also in the works – a road connecting Labadee to Cap-Haïtien’s famed world heritage tourist attractions – the Citadel of Laferrière and the ruins of Sans Souci Palace.
Now, with the central government in shambles and the world’s attention focused on Port-au-Prince, these projects don’t look like a sure thing anymore. Cap-Haïtien Mayor Michel St Croix says they desperately need about $7 million to improve the roads and infrastructure.
They might have managed it on their own too, had they not been cut off from the tourist dollars of Labadee, 5 miles west of Cap-Haïtien. Labadee is Royal Caribbean’s private resort, on lease from Haiti until 2050. After a $55 million expansion in Labadee by Royal Caribbean, the fee per passenger was raised from $6 to $10.
Until 2004, the $6 per passenger paid to Haiti was divvied up, with $2 going to the National Treasury, $2 to the Tourism Ministry and $2 to Cap-Haïtien. But since the military coup in 2004, all of it goes straight to the National Treasury.
Last year, out of the 900,000 odd people who visited Haiti, 600,000 were Royal Caribbean cruise passengers at Labadee who never saw the rest of Haiti, and didn’t stay overnight. A majority of the rest were expats visiting their homes. Simply put, Haiti does not get many tourists.
Haiti now has a choice – they can go back to things as they were, or make changes to ensure the tourism dollars are spread around. They could:-
1. Put together a plan for international aid to help develop tourism infrastructure in towns all over Haiti.
2. Share tourist tax revenues with the provinces.
3. Convince cruise companies to stay longer. Offer transportation and safety for cruise passengers who want to visit nearby towns.
According to Patrick Delatour, the Haitian Tourism Minister, the initial cost of Haiti’s reconstruction is expected to be around $3 billion, most of which will be focused on rebuilding Port-au-Prince. If even a small fraction of this amount is spent on developing tourism infrastructure outside the capital, we’ll be looking at a vastly improved Haiti in 5-10 years.