A few days after arriving back in Port-au-Prince to start ground research for the new edition of this guide, I was invited to join a press trip. I joined a clutch of travel bloggers on a trip to one of those hidden beaches that Haiti seems to excel in – a curve of creamy sand fringed with palms that holiday brochures could tout as a piece of Caribbean paradise.
The trip was indeed a brilliant piece of marketing – the sand and the sea, and the fisherman who drew up in his boat to sell us his catch for lunch, were all perfect material to be packaged up with a social media hashtag for a series of travel and lifestyle websites. The bloggers were charming company, the fresh conch was delicious and the sea was just-so for a swim. It was a great trip.
Only later did its significance hit me. The bloggers could have gone anywhere to write about. They could have gone to Costa Rica or the Dominican Republic, or a dozen other destinations. But instead they chose Haiti – the Caribbean country that’s the media’s perennial bad news story, a place known for Vodou and coups, earthquake and aid workers. Not, you might think, a natural place for tourism.
Yet Haitians have always known that their country is so much more than its traditionally troubled image portrays. There are those beaches for a start. It has a rich cultural heritage that lives through its art, music and literature. Its history – written across its landscape – is astounding, a country born out of the world’s only successful slave revolution to become the first independent black republic. When you put it like this, any country trying to build a tourist industry would give their eye-teeth for a portfolio like Haiti’s.
Wonderfully, since the first edition of this guide was published, people seem to be waking up to this other side of Haiti. The country, led by a dynamic Ministry of Tourism, has been quietly but forcefully trying to rebrand. My trip revealed that this hasn’t been just a PR exercise. Everywhere I went revealed new developments: international hospitality chains investing in the country; new tourist taxis plastered with the official red hibiscus logo of the tourism ministry; adventure travel tour groups; and even sun-loungers packed with holidaymakers on package tours who had come to Haiti for nothing more than a bit of sun. Better yet, I encountered plenty of grassroots initiatives where local communities were independently putting together their own tourism plans to best show off their assets. The long-promised Haitian tourism revolution finally seemed to have arrived.
It’s best not to get over-excited. When the bookings portal Expedia reported in 2015 that they’d seen a 500% increase in demand for Haiti trips from the previous year, it’s worth noting that the numbers started from a very small base. While the Ministry of Tourism has done much worth genuinely applauding, it has also made missteps such as its controversy-mired resort development on Île-à-Vache. For every tour group that I met, I also spoke to a hotel owner lamenting that Haitian politics – I was travelling during the messy end of President Michel Martelly’s term – was bad for their business. That electoral gridlock was prompting bad media headlines again just as Haiti’s careful marketing as the Caribbean’s hot new destination was about to be overshadowed by Cuba’s splashy return to the scene.
Haiti, like any developing nation, has its own particular set of challenges. Infrastructure isn’t always what you might hope for and, yes, there’s poverty alongside the beauty. But there are also people who are fiercely proud to be Haitian and keen to show their country off to you, and to challenge the many perceptions held about their home. The travelling can sometimes be a bit rugged, but the rewards are immense and frequently unexpected. Haiti is taking its first tentative steps back on the tourism scene, and from the majesty of the Citadelle Henry in the north to the arts of Jacmel in the south, travel pioneers are discovering its many attractions anew. Now is the perfect time to join them.
It’s always been a mystery to me why, when going to the travel section of a bookshop and looking under ‘H’, you couldn’t find a guidebook about Haiti. You always had to move back to ‘D’, where it was invariably paired with the Dominican Republic, with which it shares the island of Hispaniola. There have been guidebooks before – an early example from 1862 was aimed at African-Americans wanting to emigrate from a country still wracked by slavery – but with this book Bradt has become the first English-language publisher since the 1980s to produce a guide dedicated to this incredible country.
It’s a book I’ve wanted to write since my first visit, a wish that only increased after the 2010 earthquake, when Haiti was flooded with relief workers, often bringing their own preconceptions about the country. To research and write the first edition, I moved to Haiti and rented an apartment in Port-au-Prince. It seemed the only way to try and do the country justice; the resulting manuscript was punctuated by crowing roosters, Carnival theme tunes and delight at the first fresh mangoes and avocados of the season.
Tourism has the potential to be a big player in Haiti’s economy – something that the government seems finally to have realised and started to take seriously. Haiti has always attracted aid workers and missionaries, but more people are starting to pay attention to it as a place to visit purely on its own merits. Haiti may be a small country, but it’s ludicrously full of attractions for the pioneering traveller. So pour yourself a shot of the best Haitian rum, add a squeeze of lime and get stuck in. Ayibobo!