Some vacationers Jet Ski, lounge on beach chairs and gorge at the buffet. Others hunt souvenirs in the nearby market or soar across the sky on a zip line linking lush mountains.
Right here, in Haiti.
Miami’s Royal Caribbean Cruises has extended the palm-lined beach, put in a roller coaster and constructed an 800-foot pier — a nearly $55 million investment that is fueling hope that this troubled nation can finally achieve the elusive goal of becoming a tourist getaway once more.
“We see a lot of possibilities,” said Jean Bernard Simonnet, 54, who heads the north chapter of the Haiti Tourism Association. “We have a lot of things we can offer tourists.”
Eco-tourism, archaeological exploration and voyeuristic visits to Vodou rituals — all are being touted by Haiti’s struggling boutique tourism industry as Royal Caribbean plans to bring the world’s largest cruise ship here, sparking the need to increase excursions.
Even the U.S. Agency for International Development is weighing in, granting an initial $15 million in financing that will, among other things, promote tourism in northern Haiti by training Haitians as tour guides and hospitality workers.
“This broad interest and hope is a good environment to be in. You want people to be optimistic,” said Ray Waldron, acting chief of party for USAID’s Haiti Market Chain Enhancement, or MarChe. “There is tremendous opportunity, tremendous potential.”
But returning Haiti to its tourism heyday faces huge obstacles, from a lack of hotel rooms and decrepit roads to a parliament that puts other priorities ahead of tourism.
The tourism push comes as the United States and other nations downgrade travel warnings to Haiti, the country’s southern coast enjoys a resurgence of domestic tourism and Port-au-Prince’s international airport undergoes a $1 million modernization.
It also comes as former President Bill Clinton, now United Nations Special Envoy for Haiti, targets tourism as a key area for private investment.
Clinton plans to visit Labadee with Royal Caribbean executives when he travels to Haiti on Thursday with 150 investors. Clinton will discuss his Haiti initiatives at the 13th Annual Americas Conference on Tuesday at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables.
“There has been an effort to at least raise the consciousness of the Haitian people of the need for getting back onto the international tourism map,” Tourism Minister Patrick Delatour said.
Leading that effort so far is Royal Caribbean. The cruise line has extended its lease on the 260-acre northern peninsula until 2050 and remains committed to the expansion.
“The level of investment just speaks volumes about Royal Caribbean’s commitment,” said John Weis, the company’s associate vice president of private destinations. “We’ve never wavered on this but the project has been very challenging. There is a lack of infrastructure, building materials and heavy equipment available locally so everything must be brought in by barge.”
Of Haiti’s 800,000 visitors last year, 500,000 were ferried in by Royal Caribbean. The cruise line charged each a $6 government tax, adding $3 million to government’s coffers.
The fee will be increased to $10 after the pier is completed over the next few weeks with the additional funds being used for improvements and operations, Weis said.
“The potential for tourism in northern Haiti is incredible now that we have a pier,” Weis said. “We feel this development will put Haiti on the map by making Labadee one of the best destinations in the Caribbean.”
With 2,700 more passengers — a total of 6,300 — on days the ship visits, demand has increased for excursions beyond the snorkeling and other jaunts the cruise line currently offers through a tightly-managed experience.
Enter Delatour and Haiti’s tourism operators, who want to open the north to cruise passengers by turning the Citadelle — an impressive mountaintop fortress — into an international destination.
The $40 million plan involves transforming the now quaint town of Milot, home to the Citadelle and Palace of Sans Souci ruins, into a vibrant tourist village with arts and crafts markets, restaurants and stoned streets.
Guests would be ferried past a congested Cap-Haitien to a bay, then transported by bus past peasant plantations. Once in Milot, they would either hike or horseback to the Citadelle, built by 20,000 Haitians and named a World Heritage site in 1982.
“The four countries around us, regardless of their ideology or political system, all bet on tourism,” said Delatour, who also hopes to have Clinton visit the Citadelle. “There is a lot of pressure for Haiti to get into the fold.”
Weis said Royal Caribbean is willing to listen to plans to add day trips to its itinerary.
“Tours to the Citadelle is definitely achievable,” he said. “We have always expressed our strong support for the Citadelle and feel this would be an incredible experience for our guests by showing them the rich cultural heritage that Haiti has which is often forgotten.”
But in a country where paved roads and 24-hour electricity are luxuries, Delatour’s proposal is an ambitious one. Just constructing the seven miles from the bay to Milot — now a tortuous 45-minute, 17-mile trek — would cost about $8 million. Then the Citadelle has to be made accessible by adding guardrails and other amenities.
“It’s good to think long-term, but at the same time we have to employ short-term strategies as we go along,” said Jean Lionel Pressoir, a tour operator involved with Fondation Destination Haiti, which works with local communities to help them develop sustainable tourism models.
LACK OF SUPPORT
Meanwhile, government support for tourism initiatives has been slow. Case in point: After raising expections that the Cap-Haitien international airport would finally be modernized, allowing large jets from Miami and New York to land, parliament has yet to ratify the $30 million loan agreement between Haiti and Venezuela.
Simonnet, the local tourism leader, says business owners are excited by the prospects for the long-neglected region, but they are also looking for guarantees.
“Everyone is just living from day-to-day trying to figure out how to make payroll,” Simonnet said. “The international community is doing its part and we have to do ours, too.”