BY LARISA KARR
The Haitian Times
For years, the travel pattern of the Haitian diaspora was one of the few things that could be counted on despite unrest. Some people returned around February for carnival, others traveled with families during summer vacation and more still chose December to go see lakay for the holidays. And, of course, at any point during the year, family functions and emergencies might draw Haiti’s children home.
But that was way before. Before the devastating earthquake in August, before the assassination of the country’s president in July, before Covid-19 variants began spreading, before the gang activity and widespread killings became a fixture of daily life, before kidnapping-for-ransom schemes became the norm and even before peyi lok. Now, with numerous crises weighing heavily on Haitians at home and abroad, the travel pattern no longer seems to be a predictable part of life for some Haitian-Americans.
Travel to Haiti dropped precipitously from 2018 to 2019, the latest year data is available, according to the World Bank. In 2018, Haiti had 1.3 million visitors, the highest number ever recorded since data collection began in 1995. By the end of 2019, however, the number had fallen by nearly 400,000 to 938,000.
Of that number, 157,000 travelers went for personal purposes. About 17,000, or less than 6 percent of overall travelers, went to Haiti strictly for tourism.
Numbers from a 2020 UN World Tourism Organization report show a similar decline. It found that Haiti’s international tourism arrivals fell by 36.1 percent between 2018 and 2019.
Haïti travel: A risk worth taking?
For members of the diaspora deciding not to visit Haiti, safety is the primary factor.
“My grandmother passed away in 2015, and I was going to go with my father, but he didn’t want to pay for my security,” said Akilah Cadet, founder and CEO of strategic planning consulting firm Change Cadet who lives in Oakland, C.A. “Do I want to potentially be kidnapped, robbed, held at gunpoint or experience trauma in a country that I love?”
Those who do decide to go to Haiti feel strongly about demonstrating to others that travel to the country is still possible, despite everything that has happened this year.
“It’s my mission to show that you can go to Haiti every year because my friends always say that now is not a good time,” said Valerie Gabriel, a first grade teacher in the Bronx. “It’s not only a way to enjoy myself, but to show others that I’m out there and that they can come too.”
Gabriel travels to Haiti each year for a variety of reasons, including to visit family, and attend parties and carnival. She had plans to visit in the summer, but after the earthquake made ground transportation impossible in some of the areas she planned to visit, she decided to postpone her trip for later this year.
Besides the natural disasters, political turmoil and the resulting violence impacts the decision to travel to Haiti, according to a study in the Journal of Policy Research in Tourism, Leisure and Events.
Governments warning their citizens against travel can also be a factor.
“Safety is generally the number one factor people use to choose a destination when they do surveys,” said Tiffany Rhodes, an associate professor at the Center for International Travel and Tourism Studies at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I. “When you go to sites like travel.state.gov and you see there’s a level four travel advisory not because of COVID, this violence is detrimental to the tourism industry in that community.”
The U.S. State Department issued its highest “Do Not Travel” alert, their highest travel advisory due to life-threatening risks, in March 2020. The United Kingdom and Canada both issued similar warnings in August and this month, respectively.
Tourism, rebranding Haiti as an answer
Experts said that Haiti can learn from other countries in the surrounding region how to brand itself, despite issues with political instability and natural disasters.
“An interest in tourism can be part of a kind of development strategy for Haiti because you have to bear in mind that the Caribbean is the most tourism-dependent region in the world,” said Desmond Thomas, a Florida-based economist who focuses on tourism in the Caribbean. “For a country’s tourism sector to be successful, a certain amount of branding has to take place.”
He said the neighboring country of Jamaica is an apt example. Despite its consistent ranking as one of the most high-crime countries in the world, Jamaica’s tourism industry thrives because it has marketed itself as a brand to U.S. and European tourists through luxurious beach resorts and reggae musicians like Bob Marley.
Some experts, though, cautioned against using Jamaica as a model.
“It is important that Haiti get consulting help on how to create a sustainable tourism product, because what happens with these all-inclusive resorts where tourists feel safe is that they don’t go out and the money that they spend remains in that enclave,” said Rhodes, the tourism professor.
A sustainable tourism model, she said, where Haiti focuses on strengthening its governance and cultural preservation would help reduce issues like gang violence. Under such a model, tourists would go to local grocery stores, hotels and restaurants, boosting the economy and providing jobs.
This would stand in contrast to the “economic leakage” tourism strategy common to Jamaica and other Caribbean countries, Rhodes said, where resort money does not circulate into the local economy.
Experts also said Haiti can overcome its association with negative images like political chaos and natural disasters by emphasizing its positive traits, both natural and historical.
“As the first independent country with a successful slave rebellion, Haiti can use not just beaches but historic elements to create a different plan for the country,” Thomas said. “These are areas where academics and neighboring Caribbean countries with successful tourism sectors can help to guide that branding process.”
Travel gradually lost to turmoil and, now, Covid-19 too
COVID-19 also remains a key concern that could reveal a significant impact in Haiti’s tourism statistics once new data is released. With Haiti still reporting new coronavirus cases each day, and only 0.3 percent of the population vaccinated, the question remains whether the country will be able to accommodate travelers from abroad anytime soon.
American citizens who visit are not required to quarantine, but must display proof of a negative COVID test up to 72 hours prior before boarding a flight, according to the U.S. Embassy in Haiti.
Travel could further slow if different variants of the virus continue to spread, according to an International Air Transport Association (IATA) air passenger market analysis.
Despite the events of 2021, people like Gabriel remain firm in their decision to return to Haiti.
“In my case, you have to be really passionate and understand why you’re going there because I know people are not wanting to go on vacation right now,” said Gabriel, who plans to start an education project on her next trip to Haiti. “This year is very special because so many things happened at once, but I am fearless, so I will go.”