Lonely Planet – Is it safe to travel to Haiti? – Image by Viran De Silva

 

Say ‘Haiti’ and most people’s first response isn’t likely to be ‘holiday destination’. From political troubles to natural disasters, recent decades haven’t been kind to this Caribbean nation. Five years on from the devastating earthquake that shook Haiti to its foundations, the country is still rocked by an ongoing political crisis and struggling to haul itself out of the rubble. But there’s a change in the air, and Haiti is loudly proclaiming itself ready to welcome tourists back to its shores. Visitor numbers are up and the word is out: Haiti is, supposedly, the hot new travel destination for 2015. We ask if Haiti is really ready for tourists.

Why all the hype?

Haiti is that rare beast – it holds a full hand of attractions for travellers, but receives so few visitors that pretty much everywhere feels off the beaten track. Five years on from the 2010 earthquake, the Haitian government is hoping that tourism is the pot of gold to advance Haiti’s development and reduce its dependency on foreign aid.

Ambitious initiatives are being announced on what seems like a daily basis: a cruise port is to be built on the old pirate haven of Ile de la Tortue; international brands such as Best Western and the Marriott Group are leading a hotel-building boom in Port-au-Prince; and new air links between the US and the country’s second city Cap-Haïtien – close to Haiti’s top attraction, the haunting Citadelle la Ferrière – have been established. The wooing of tour operators has successfully seen Haiti added to the list of new adventure travel destinations. Although there have been missteps along the way (plans to develop the beautiful island of Ile-a-Vache as a luxury eco-tourism destination has been much criticised for displacing the local population), the tourist board’s hard work seems to be paying off.

Say ‘Haiti’ and most people’s first response isn’t likely to be ‘holiday destination’. From political troubles to natural disasters, recent decades haven’t been kind to this Caribbean nation. Five years on from the devastating earthquake that shook Haiti to its foundations, the country is still rocked by an ongoing political crisis and struggling to haul itself out of the rubble. But there’s a change in the air, and Haiti is loudly proclaiming itself ready to welcome tourists back to its shores. Visitor numbers are up and the word is out: Haiti is, supposedly, the hot new travel destination for 2015. We ask if Haiti is really ready for tourists.

Remarkably, 'gingerbread' houses in Port-au-Prince like this survived the 2010 earthquake. Image by Viran De Silva Remarkably, ‘gingerbread’ houses in Port-au-Prince like this survived the 2010 earthquake. Image by Viran De Silva

Why all the hype?

Haiti is that rare beast – it holds a full hand of attractions for travellers, but receives so few visitors that pretty much everywhere feels off the beaten track. Five years on from the 2010 earthquake, the Haitian government is hoping that tourism is the pot of gold to advance Haiti’s development and reduce its dependency on foreign aid.

Ambitious initiatives are being announced on what seems like a daily basis: a cruise port is to be built on the old pirate haven of Ile de la Tortue; international brands such as Best Western and the Marriott Group are leading a hotel-building boom in Port-au-Prince; and new air links between the US and the country’s second city Cap-Haïtien – close to Haiti’s top attraction, the haunting Citadelle la Ferrière – have been established. The wooing of tour operators has successfully seen Haiti added to the list of new adventure travel destinations. Although there have been missteps along the way (plans to develop the beautiful island of Ile-a-Vache as a luxury eco-tourism destination has been much criticised for displacing the local population), the tourist board’s hard work seems to be paying off.

Citadelle la Ferrière: a haunting homage to Haiti's former grandeur and a country highlight. Image by Viran De Silva Citadelle la Ferrière: a haunting homage to Haiti’s former grandeur and a country highlight. Image by Viran De Silva

The good news for grassroots travel in 2015 is that, as the mass-market tourist resorts have yet to materialise, hotels remain locally owned and tourist dollars from bed and board to meals and souvenir shopping all pumps valuable money directly into the economy. Travellers who go now will experience a different Haiti to the one that is likely to emerge in a few years.

Yet, for potential visitors to Haiti two questions should remain: is it safe and has the country recovered enough since the 2010 earthquake to make this Caribbean country a responsible addition to the travel bucket list?

Behind Haiti’s bad press

Haiti has a long history of bad press, from the early isolation imposed upon it by colonial powers threatened by Haiti pulling off  the world’s only successful slave revolution, to the ‘voodoo’ and zombie mania triggered by the US’s two-decade occupation of the country in the early 20th century. The political instability of past decades certainly hasn’t helped its reputation, but in truth Haiti is no more or less risky than many other developing countries that are popular with travellers.

The shabby streets of Jacmel, Haiti's culture capital. Image by Viran De Silva The shabby streets of Jacmel, Haiti’s culture capital. Image by Viran De Silva

While crime can certainly be an issue, Haiti might actually be one of the safer countries in the Caribbean. Its murder rate pales in comparison to that of some of the Caribbean’s top holiday destinations – half that of the Dominican Republic and barely a quarter of Jamaica’s, according to the UNODC’s 2013 Global Study on Homicide. Port-au-Prince, the heart of recent political demonstrations and most tourists’ main point of entry into Haiti, dominates the crime statistics but foreigners are rarely targeted: figures are skewed heavily to inter-gang violence primarily in neighbourhoods that tourists are unlikely to visit such as Carrefour, Cite Soleil, Martissant and Bel Air. These areas are included on several government travel advisories and travellers should duly take heed.

Politics: a reality check

Recent media coverage has focused on anti-government protests and a repeated failure to hold elections that, at the beginning of 2015, left the country without a functioning parliament while the president ruled by decree. In reality, though, this complex local issue isn’t likely to affect travellers’ experience on the ground in Haiti. Demonstrations are a regular feature of Port-au-Prince life (and should be avoided by visitors) but the capital generally functions around them.

While it’s important to keep your wits about you and be sensible – and keep half an eye on the news – don’t get too hung up on Haiti’s reputation. Travellers who make it to the country are far more likely to come away with positive impressions than horror stories.

The cobalt-blue pools of Bassins Bleu are firmly on the map for intrepid travellers. Image by Viran De Silva The cobalt-blue pools of Bassins Bleu are firmly on the map for intrepid travellers. Image by Viran De Silva

After the earthquake

The 2010 earthquake killed more than 200,000 people and left 1.5 million homeless. Sadly, the international efforts to ‘build back better’ have been faltering at best. Although the rubble has long been cleared and the tent camps that covered Port-au-Prince have largely disappeared from view (visitors are unlikely to see either), Haiti’s housing crisis is a long way from being solved. Cholera – which killed 8500 people after its inadvertent introduction by United Nations soldiers – still lingers in places. Spread through water contaminated with fecal matter, it’s essential to pay attention to hygiene while travelling, washing your hands after toilet visits and before eating. Many restaurants automatically offer hand-sanitiser to diners, but it’s still a good idea to carry some yourself.

Outside Port-au-Prince, the historic centre of Jacmel was badly bruised by the tremblor, but most areas of interest to visitors lie far from the earthquake zone.

Haiti’s top attractions

Travel in Haiti can sometimes be a little unpredictable. It’s very much a country with a developing world infrastructure (and attendant costs: while transport is cheap, finding a decent room for under US$50 can be hard). But for the adventurous-minded, it’s a country that holds great opportunities for discovery. Haiti’s attractions certainly deserve to be better known, and now might be the time to discover them.

Citadelle la Ferrière & Sans Souci An extraordinary fortress built to repel a feared French invasion, the Citadelle la Ferrière sits atop a mountain peak, a World Heritage-listed monument to independence. In the America’s perhaps only Machu Picchu compares to its setting and grandeur. At its foot is the ruined palace of Sans Souci, a baroque Versaille in the tropics that feels like something from an Indiana Jones movie.

Sans Souci palace was ruined in another major Haiti earthquake in 1842. Image by Viran De Silva Sans Souci palace was ruined in another major Haiti earthquake in 1842. Image by Viran De Silva

Jacmel & around In the south, Jacmel, with its art galleries, handicrafts and New Orleans-esque architecture is a gem to explore. It’s Carnival every February, a raucous rootsy affair of music, art and street theatre, is one of the best in the Caribbean and not to be missed if you’re anywhere near at the time. The beautiful Bassins Bleu waterfalls are a short trip from Jacmel centre.

Vodou ceremonies & traditions Haiti is known for its vodou traditions, and if you ask around you can find a ceremony to attend most places in the country. Ask permission from the local houngan (priest) – it’s usually forthcoming, but a donation of money or a bottle of rum for the spirits is welcomed. Vodou art can be best found in the workshops of the Atiz Resistans collective in downtown Port-au-Prince.