The Caribbean island has enough beautiful beaches, colorful handicrafts and world cultural heritage. But hardship and poverty have shaped its image.
Highlife on the beach at Labadee. Image: imago/All Canada Photos
Haitians call it "goudougoudou." An onomatopoeic word for the 40-second earthquake of Jan. 12, 2010, when the country was in the headlines. A catastrophe that at the same time raised hopes that with international aid and thanks to the great attention given to Haiti at the time, there was a possibility of a new beginning. Away from the reputation of being the poorest country. Today, tourism is the magic word for this.
A group of Canadian tourists is the vanguard of the tourism that President Michel Martelly has taken up. The package tour is offered by the Canadian tour operator Transat Holidays in cooperation with Pierre Chauvette’s long-established Haitian travel agency La Citadelle. A bubbly guy in his 50s, he crafts his sentences in English at a rapid pace, remembering the days when Haiti had seven German-language guidebooks.
He’s annoyed that foreign journalists are always being led to the slums instead of pointing out the country’s beauties: "We won’t be able to solve Haiti’s problems by showing only the negative sides." In his agency’s program, he has put together a whole series of smaller and larger tours: Beach vacations, cultural sightseeing, forays through cities, hiking tours.
Not a country for individual travelers
Local tour operators: Agence Citadelle www.agencecitadelle.com,Tel. (5 09) 2 23-59 00;Voyage Lumiere Haiti voyageslumiere.com, Tel: (5 09) 36 07-1321.
Foreign tour operator: Canadian tour operator Transat Holidays www.transatholidays.com
Musee de la canne à sucre: parccanneasucre.org/
Accommodation around Cap Haitien: Lakou Lakay – basic rooms (run by Monsieur Maurice), tel. (5 09) 36 67 60 70 or 36 14 24 85; Hotel Cormier Plage, upscale, beachfront, excellent cuisine, tel. (5 09) 37 02 02 10 or 38 04 66 73.
Travel guide: "Haiti" by Paul Clammer published by Bradt, 22.64 euros.
Tip: If you travel on your own – which is not very easy – you should get a prepaid card for your cell phone in Haiti. The cell phone network is very well developed.
A visit to the Musee de la canne à sucre is also on the agenda. The museum grounds are a green idyll in the middle of a dusty industrial landscape. A former sugar cane factory with an old locomotive and a mill that, driven by slaves, squeezed the juice out of the sugar cane plants, which was then boiled into syrup in large vats. An impressive collection of material that tells the story of the abduction of slaves to the first independent black republic. The pride of the Haitians, who fought for independence in 1804 as the first colony in Latin America, is always accompanied by melancholy about the eventful history of their country. Haiti, which is located on the western half of the island of Hispaniola, which it shares with the Dominican Republic, was France’s richest colony.
At the end of the tour, there is rum punch on the restaurant terrace: strong, sweet and very drinkable. A young man from Montreal retires to an adjacent table for a cigarette. His father is Haitian and under no circumstances wants to set foot on Haitian soil again. He, on the other hand, wants to visit his family in the mountains of Kenscoff, who know nothing of his arrival.
Other than an outdated guidebook, he has nothing to get by in Haiti. Getting to Kenscoff on his own will certainly not be easy. After all, there is hardly any public transportation. Only the overcrowded taptaps, shared cabs whose departure stations have no signs, where you knock on the driver’s front and say "Merci chauffeur" so that he will let the passenger out.
The original word "Ayiti" means "land of high mountains" in the language of the Tainos, the indigenous people of Haiti. Up there in the mountains of Haiti, the delicate, cicada-like sounds of anoli lizards resonate through the heights in the early morning hours. The first cock cries are carried across the valleys by the misty breeze.
From Port-au-Prince, it is a 20-minute flight on a small passenger plane to Cap-Haitien, the capital of the northern province and a major tourist destination. Here, 700 new hotel rooms are to be built in the next few years. The hotels, which have a sleepy, familiar and architecturally typical character, will then be brought up to international hotel standards.
The Hotel Cormier Plage is located on the coast. Its entrance is reminiscent of a tropical jungle: huge palm trees, screeching parrots, pebbled paths in between, past a tennis court to a small reception. Cormier Plage is a resort with tradition right on the fine-sand beach, furnished with Haitian furniture, handicrafts, and even Taino canoes. There are only 39 rooms here. You order your drink or a snack at the bar, lie down in one of the deck chairs, let the sand trickle through your toes and then hardly believe your eyes when a spaceship appears on the horizon. Huge, misshapen and unreal.
Cruisers in cultural no man’s land
The Royal Caribbean Company cruise ship heads for the nearby beaches of Labadee. "Where the place is actually spelled Labadie, but for Anglophone tourists that would sound too morbid in pronunciation," explains Hans Broder Schutt, Haiti’s sixth-generation honorary German consul, who is having a drink here. His ancestors were among the first Germans to seek their fortune in Haiti two hundred years ago. The beaches of Labadie are a destination exclusively for the Royal Carribean Company. A cultural no man’s land is sold as a dream of the Caribbean with fine sand and palm trees.
Nevertheless, Hans Broder Schutt believes that German tourists can discover something special in Haiti. "The German tourist is curious. Even the hotels are different. Not like those giant hotels in the Dominican Republic. It’s an experience when you come to Haiti," he says.
Milot, for example, is a town steeped in history in Haiti’s Nord department, 15 kilometers south of Cap-Haitien. To the south of the town, in the historic national park, lie the ruins of the Palais Sans Souci, named after the model from Potsdam. It was once the residence of Haitian King Henri Christophe. An earthquake in 1842 reduced the palace to rubble. A larger-than-life picture of Napoleon is said to have hung in the main hall. When Henri Christophe fell victim to a stroke and was paralyzed on one side, he tore the painting to pieces before shooting himself with a silver bullet.
Garbage is a huge problem
Monsieur Maurice, the elegant guide in a striped shirt and pressed pleated trousers, leads us from there to the Citadelle, a mighty castle fortress at an altitude of 900 meters. Along the way, there are huts made of corrugated iron, banana leaves and wood. Past a group of children who, perfectly timed, play typical rara music on bamboo tubes, which has its origins in voodoo. It took 14 years to build the Citadel, 20,000 workers were employed. The walls are four meters thick and forty meters high. In 1982, it became a Unesco World Heritage Site.
From up here, everything seems peaceful, orderly, coherent. Until we descend into the city again, past the gates of the market, the hustle and bustle of the merchants, across the riverbed, where lots of plastic bottles and Stryrofoam containers lie. Garbage is a huge problem in Haiti. Monsieur Maurice is not shaken by this: "We have so much to offer, including the islands off the coast of Haiti. We are working to develop these islands for tourism. With patience and clear objectives, we will get there."
The Ministry of Tourism, under Minister Stephanie Balmir Villedrouin, wants to promote tourism that involves the people of Haiti. That’s not easy. On the idyllic island of Île à Vache off Les Cayes in southern Haiti, residents are protesting. They fear for their existence, for their rights as citizens, for their small piece of land, which is now to make way for modern hotel facilities. And they are angry that Dominican companies were contracted for the construction work instead of employing locals.