Though not as popular as other Caribbean islands, Haiti has been a tourist destination for decades but with the 2010 earthquake, key players on the ground consider the past year as the starting point for tourism in the country and the Haitian diaspora is leading this charge.
There are more than 4 million Haitians living outside of Haiti and new data show they, and also U.S. travelers, are eager to visit a country that’s working to demonstrate it’s open for tourism.
Following the catastrophic earthquake in 2010, which killed hundreds of thousands in and around Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince, the country is largely relying on the Haitian diaspora living in the U.S. and elsewhere to spread the word that it’s no longer a disaster epicenter or disease-ridden.
Where is the Interest Coming From?
Last year Haiti welcomed 430,000 international visitors arriving by air and another 600,000 cruise visitors, but it’s difficult to pinpoint whether this renewed interest in Haiti in the U.S. comes from the 2.5 million Haitian expats living there looking to visit their homeland for holiday or if there’s actually new interest from U.S. travelers who have no connections to the country.
Many U.S.-based Haitians have U.S. passports, for example, said Jean Marc Flambert, a spokesperson for Haiti’s Ministry of Tourism and a native Haitian himself. He estimates about 80% of inbound air arrivals are Haitians visiting family and friends
“After the Vietnam War there was increased interest in people wanting to go to Vietnam and the same thing happened with the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka,” said Flambert.
“Haiti is this new country now in a sense and it’s a new beginning. We are also seeing a rise in non-Haitian visitors from the U.S. that’s really only started this year, so this is a new phenomenon that’s happening very fast. Even if most of our visitors are Haitian, they’re still visitors who weren’t coming two years ago and they’re still staying in our hotels and growing our economy.”
To reach Haitians living in the U.S., the Ministry of Tourism has regular meetings with numerous U.S. Haitian taxi and sports associations to jumpstart conversations about life in Haiti in 2015 and how recovery efforts have come a long way during the past five years.
“One of our first strategies was to connect with the diaspora to use them to help spread the word about Haiti, especially in New York City, Boston and Miami where there are large Haitian populations,” said Flambert. “I guarantee one of the next four taxis you get into in New York, at least one of the drivers will be Haitian, and if the Haitians tell you to go to Haiti, you’ll want to go.”
While Haitians living abroad are the perfect brand ambassadors and vehicles to drive the Ministry of Tourism’s goal forward, the country desperately needs the money generated from tourism, and foreign investment, and how much it can attract will ultimately decide whether Haiti can rival other Caribbean and global destinations.
Flambert added he “believes strongly in trade, not aid,” and though there are more than 100,000 expats and humanitarian workers and volunteers living in Haiti, there are neon signs that money could be on its way in the form of new trade and business growth.
GB Group, a multinational industrial group with companies in industries including lodging, energy and agriculture, broke ground on a massive project in June called Lafito Global. The project is meant to transform the Port-au-Prince economy and will modernize and improve the city’s main shipping port and create a business park, residential area, country club and boutique hotel, and GB Group said it will invest $145 million in the project by the end of this year alone.
The project is slated to bring more than 25,000 jobs to Haiti by 2020 and aims to make the country one of the Caribbean’s most prominent industrial and business hubs. Not to mention Port-au-Prince’s metro area represents nearly a third of Haiti’s total population, and it’s the bedrock and launching point for international visitors.
The new Marriott Port-au-Prince opened earlier this year to a Haiti that in many ways has regained its footing but still lacks global brand recognition.
It wasn’t the first major hotel to lay roots in the city–a Best Western, NH Hotel and a Barcelo Hotel are some examples of properties pre-dating Marriott’s arrival. But its reputation as one of the largest international chains has caused its role in the city to essentially double as a destination marketing organization (DMO) perhaps more than hotels in other cities.
“I absolutely agree that we have to also think of ourselves as a DMO because Marriott is such a well-known global brand,” said Elsa Sammartano, director of sales and marketing for the hotel.
“But I would also add we’ve been working closely with the Ministry of Tourism who we couldn’t do what we do without their support. Marriott alone cannot change the perception of Haiti and we’re essentially a brand new destination for leisure travelers and in a country where we’re trying to put tourism infrastructure in place. It makes sense for Marriott to be in Haiti given that we have so many Haitians working in our properties around the world.”
She also insists “Haiti is basically at a turning point that the Dominican Republic was at 20 years ago.”
Air bookings data from Adara show the average trip duration for visitors from the U.S. to Haiti is 18 days, only the Dominican Republic has a longer average trip duration for a Caribbean destination. About 82% of U.S. bookings for Haiti are solo travelers according to Adara, which Flambert and Sammartano say is likely due to the large number of humanitarian workers coming to Haiti for extended periods of time.
“About 25% of our guests are American, and Haitians living in Haiti are our second largest market, followed by the Dominican Republic and France,” said Sammartano. “Many of our guests are NGO workers but we’re also getting several business travelers too and we hosted the Association of American Chambers of Commerce in Latin America conference at our hotel in June.”
Cuba: A Friend or Foe?
With Cuba’s opening up to Americans, the potential exists for that to overshadow Haiti’s revitalization as a destination by Americans’ interest getting drawn to Cuba.
Both Flambert and Sammartano feel that won’t happen, or at least that Haiti won’t lose its apparent new luster.
“We’re really investing in marketing our unique history and ecotourism opportunities that we feel are much different than Cuba,” said Flambert. “Cuba is a great destination, but its hotels are at capacity and supply is low and once Americans start showing up it won’t be this exotic place that Europeans have loved for years. Travelers will look at Haiti as this hidden gem and as the last unexplored frontier of the Caribbean.”
“When Americans show up to Cuba, they won’t find the global hotels that Haiti already has,” said Sammartano. “You come to Haiti more for an ecotourism experience and Cuba more for a mass tourism experience. We already work with tour operators on itineraries that involve both the Dominican Republic and Haiti and I don’t see why developing itineraries that include Cuba isn’t a possibility since guests will want to go to Haiti and Cuba.”
In the near-term Marriott and the Ministry of Tourism will focus marketing efforts mainly in the U.S. and Dominican Republic and eventually broaden to reach other Latin American markets.
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Photo credit: Haiti's Ministry of Tourism is relying on Haitians living abroad to spread the word that the country is open for business and travel, and it's focusing its marketing efforts on promoting its history and ecotourism. Experience Haiti/Haiti Ministry of Tourism