mardi 29 juillet 2014

Haiti returns to the tourist map

Following the devastating earthquake four years ago, the 'beautiful, bedevilled’ Caribbean island of Haiti is ready to welcome visitors, says Ian Thomson By Ian Thomson
8:00AM BST 27 Jul 2014
Rum punches on the veranda of a gingerbread hotel, delicious in the tropical noon… the sound of drums, rumbling in the hills, reaching your room at night. Haiti will always be entrancing for those in search of an out-of-the-way experience. It has echoes of west Africa – the houm-doum-do from that Vodou gathering – and a dash of French custom and Latin devil-may-care cool. This was apparent on my first visit almost 25 years ago in 1990, when I gathered material for a book about the Caribbean island, Bonjour Blanc.
Last June, I returned to beautiful, bedevilled Haiti for the first time in 10 years. I was itching to see how it had changed since I wrote the book and what damage had been left by the terrible earthquake of January 12 2010. This time, I would not be travelling by jitney, lorry or fishing boat, but in taxis and air-conditioned tourist coaches.
From the air, Haiti is a sun-scorched clinker; deforestation, caused by a ruinous cutting of timber for charcoal, has destroyed much of the green. As the plane rolled smoothly along the tarmac at Port-au-Prince, the capital, a group of musicians at Immigration were shaking maracas and strumming guitars in welcome. Bright-coloured advertisements for Haitian beer and rum adorned the walls. The airport looked like any other in the West Indies.
Port-au-Prince was as exhilarating and exhausting as I remembered it. The streets, thronged with pack animals, porters and ambulatory salesmen, were a human ant heap. The smells I knew so well from the earlier visits – jasmine, burning rubbish – hit me forcefully and it was as though I had never been away.
Parts of the city were visibly still damaged from the earthquake. One of the worst natural disasters in Caribbean history, the earthquake claimed up to 316,000 lives. The National Palace was turned to dust; the twin-spired Episcopalian cathedral, the Palais de Justice and the Palais des Ministères were all pulverised. The convulsions lasted just 35 seconds, but a more graphic image of municipal chaos would be hard to imagine: the heart of Haiti’s national and civic life had been razed. Rich and poor alike were reduced to a state of homelessness and despair.
Now, four years on, Haiti is a nation on the road to recovery. The tent cities have mostly gone and I was impressed by the industry of rebuilding and sense of hope for a new start. No traveller should feel put off. The Haitian government is wooing travel companies in Europe and North America. Things are still a long way from perfect – Haiti lacks the refinements of its Caribbean neighbours – yet the US State Department considers the country safe for tourists, while the Foreign Office warns only against travel to four specific slum districts in Port-au-Prince: Carrefour, Cité Soleil, Martissant and Bel Air. Given all this, it will not be long before the first charter flights and cruise ships arrive. I would urge people to visit now, before the country is marketed as the “edgy new Cuba” and loses something of its haphazard allure.
Next day, I took the local Sunrise Airlines flight to Cap-Haïtien in the north. On a mountaintop there stands a fortress they call the Eighth Wonder of the World. It was built by King Henri Christophe of northern Haiti, who committed suicide with a silver bullet (they say) in 1820 following a coup. Obscured by clouds, the Citadel is overwhelmed at first by the king’s rococo palace of Sans Souci, intended to be the Versailles of the New World. With its terraced steps mounting like a ziggurat temple, Sans Souci resembles an Aztec or Sumerian ruin; tangled with lianas, the palace is a luminescent, haunting relic of state power.
Tourists can reach the Citadel by foot or hired horse; the walk uphill takes about two hours, but it is worth it. The Citadel was built as a defence against a return to slavery. A mass of titanic stone apparently welded to the landscape, it towers above the trees on Pic de la Ferrière like a gigantic Crusader castle. Inside, I was shown a maze of passageways, oubliettes and galleries laden with English and French cannon. They say Christophe was buried here in quicklime to deny the mobs his corpse. The view from the ramparts is one of the most magnificent in the western hemisphere: a great antiquity of mountain, forest and sea. No visit to Haiti would be complete without a Vodou ceremony. Vodou reflects the rage and ecstasy that threw off the shackles of slavery. On the night of August 15 1791, a ceremony was held outside Cap-Haïtien that marked the beginning of the African slaves’ revolt against the colonial French. (Haiti, the world’s first black republic, gained independence in 1804.) For many Haitians, Vodou is a way to rise above the misery of poverty and the devastation wreaked by hurricanes, mud slides, storms and other natural disasters. When a Haitian is possessed by a loa (spirit) he is taken out of himself and gratefully transformed.
To attend a Vodou ceremony, you have to follow the rumble of drums into the countryside. This I did on my birthday, June 24, St John’s Day. In Vodou, St John the Baptist (Sen Jen Batis) is a powerful, rum-drinking divinity who is propitiated with bonbons and bottles of alcohol. At the village of Trou-du-Nord, not far from the Citadel, the night air was dirty like a smoked ceiling and eerie with the barking of dogs. Around the parish church of St John the candles and the swaying, crowded bodies suggested a Mexican Day of the Dead.
Crowds stood around the edge of the Vodou temple made of woven palm-thatch; they paid me no mind. The mambo (priestess) was sweating and jiggering her shoulder like an epileptic, her hands loaded with masonic rings and bangles. The drummers, bashing furiously, looked similarly possessed. A peaceable religion, Vodou is derived from the rites and beliefs brought to Haiti by African slaves in the 1600s. It is as old as Christianity.
The main town on Haiti’s south coast, Jacmel, is a glory. Steamships used to sail there every month from Southampton, exchanging tweeds for coffee. Today the coffee exporters’ houses with their wonky verandas recall the French quarter of New Orleans. The Hotel Florita, off Rue du Commerce, is a beautifully restored 1880s town house with teak floors and overhead fans that used to belong to the American poet and art collector Seldon Rodman. From the Florita you can travel by horse or minibus up to the bassin bleu – blue pool – along a beautiful, jungle-like trail in the hills. The waters of the bassin, a series of amazing blue-green natural aquifers, are deliciously cool on sun-heated skin. I stripped down to my underpants and dived in. With the vault of bright blue sky above, I was in heaven.
The streets of Haiti Back in Port-au-Prince, I made a beeline for the Hotel Oloffson, a magnificent gingerbread mansion made famous by Graham Greene in his Haitian novel The Comedians. Illuminated at night, the hotel was a folly of spires and fretwork. Hurricane lamps flickered yellow, showing white rattan furniture. I had not seen the manager, Richard Morse, since I proposed marriage here in 1990 (I went down on two knees to Laura after a burst of gunfire startled me).
“Ian, it’s been too long,” said Richard, laconic as ever. Not only had he kept the Oloffson open all these years, but he fronts a world-class Vodou rock band, named RAM after his initials. The band played so well that Thursday night in the hotel that I thought I would levitate out of my seat. Past guests have included Noël Coward, John Gielgud, Marlon Brando and Mick Jagger (who wrote Emotional Rescue there). Laughably, a room had been named after me as the author of Bonjour Blanc.
By day, Port-au-Prince is a study in bedlam. The roads are crammed with buses known as tap-taps from the noise of their vintage engines; painted with psychedelic flamingos and palm trees, they list perilously and belch smoke. The Iron Market, a block of bargaining and bawling, is a great arched structure in vibrant reds and greens, with minaret-domes that might have come from India. It is the best place to buy fantastic Haitian paintings, raffia bags, globular straw baskets or Ali Baba jars. I bought a chromolithograph of my birthday divinity St John and a bottle of Haitian Barbancourt rum (five-star), pure ambrosia. Tired and in need of a drink, I headed for the magnificent National Pantheon Museum, a sleek underground structure across the road from the razed National Palace. Inside was a display of rusted iron manacles, chains, branding irons, muzzles and other implements of slavery, along with portraits of the Haitian national heroes Toussaint L’Ouverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines. Forged in the crucible of French colonialism, Haiti was once the most profitable slave colony the world had ever known.
After a week in Haiti my time had almost run out, and I felt the same emotion as 10 years ago, a mix of impatience for home and regret at leaving. Haiti is one of the most astonishing places – a west Africa in the Caribbean. I found a courage and humour in the face of desperate odds that was like an intoxication of hope. Change cannot come too soon; I can’t wait to go back.
Ian Thomson’s 'Bonjour Blanc: A Journey Through Haiti’ is published by Vintage in a new and revised edition.
When to go December to March are coolest. Carnival is held each February after Shrove Tuesday to mark the start of Lent. It is Haiti’s biggest party and, for me, the best time to go. The Carnival of the Flowers takes place in late July.
Flying time and difference
Eleven hours; GMT minus 5 hrs.
Getting there
American Airlines (020 7365 0777; americanairlines.co.uk), British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and Delta Air Lines (0871 221 1222;delta.com) fly via New York and Miami. Air France (0870 142 4343;airfrance.co.uk) and Air Caraïbes (aircaraibes.com) fly via Paris and Guadeloupe. The other option is to fly to Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic. From there it is a two-hour road transfer to Santo Domingo, then a 40-minute flight on Sunrise Airways (sunriseairways.net). Packages
G Adventures (0844 272 0000; gadventures.co.uk) has just launched its Haiti programme and Undiscovered Destinations (0191 296 2674;undiscovered-destinations.com) also has trips organised. Wild Frontiers (020 7736 3968; wildfrontierstravel.com) has two tours scheduled for 2015, on sale from September, while Exodus (0845 287 7658;exodus.co.uk) plans to introduce a Discovery trip to Haiti next year. For details of other tour operators, visit experiencehaiti.org .
The best hotels of a budget Hotel Oloffson ££
This truly magnificent, historic gingerbread hotel in Port-au-Prince is where the more adventurous stay. Thursday night is music night and well worth attending. Service can be a bit haphazard but what you lose in convenience you gain in atmosphere. Rooms from $100/£59, suites from $200/£118 (3810 4000; hoteloloffson.com). NH Haiti El Rancho ££
Art deco folly that used to be a favourite with Richard Burton and the New York crooner Harry Belafonte, with splashing fountains and Italianate marble floors. Partially rebuilt after the earthquake but still lovely. Rooms from $120/£71 (0034 91 398 46 61; nh-hotels.com). The best luxury hotels
The Karibe Hotel (2812 7000; karibehotel.com), Best Western (2814 2222; bestwesternpremierhaiti.com) and Royal Oasis by Occidental (royaloasishotel.com) all offer more luxurious if somewhat bland accommodation. Rooms from $160 (£94).
The best restaurants
Le Plaza Hotel £
Has an excellent Creole buffet every Wednesday lunchtime, and a barbecue buffet on Sunday evenings, accompanied by a Haitian twoubadou (countryside troubadour) band with drums, maracas and guitars (10 Rue Capois, Port-au-Prince; 3701 9303/2940 9800;plazahaiti.com).
Hotel Oloffson ££
Its lovely veranda restaurant is still one of the best places for breakfast in Port-au-Prince (60 Avenue Christophe; details above).
Le Quartier Latin £££
Atmospheric, bourgeois-bohême gourmet restaurant and nightclub with live salsa and meringue (10 Rue Goulard, Place Boyer, Pétion-Ville; 3460 3326/3445 3325; email: brasserieql@gmail.com).
The village of Croix-de-Bouquets, eight miles outside Port-au-Prince, is a must for carved iron sculptures of Vodou divinities and other art pieces. The Galerie Nader on Rue Grégoire in Pétion-Ville has superb Haitian fine art for sale.
Always carry American $1 notes, the preferred currency, for bottles of water, tips, snacks and taxis.
Regardless of your colour or race, you will be amicably addressed as “blanc”, which in Haitian Creole means “foreigner” as well as “white”.
Never dole out gifts of sweets or chewing gum, as this creates resentments locally and puts street vendors out of business.
The popular beach resorts are on the Arcadins Coast, 45 minutes north of Port-au-Prince. In Cap-Haïtien, Labadie beach is famous as a cruise ship destination. The Cormier Plage Resort hotel (cormierhait.com) outside Cap has a lovely private beach, a silver strand by moonlight.
The local currency is the Haitian gourde. HTG77 = £1. Most travellers use US dollars. HTG45 = $1.
No visa is required. Immunisations against diphtheria, tetanus, polio, hepatitis A and typhoid are strongly recommended. The oral cholera vaccine Dukoral is sometimes suggested depending on where in Haiti you are going. Anti-malaria prophylaxis is essential.
Further information
See experiencehaiti.org. The Bradt Travel Guide to Haiti by Paul Clammer is strongly recommended. My own hybrid of history and adventure, Bonjour Blanc: A Journey Through Haiti (Vintage), is still the only major modern travelogue about Haiti.

American Airlines next stop: Cap-Haïtien, Haiti

Haiti’s historical mecca is expanding to the world.
After a modified 757 transporting then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in October 2012 became the first large aircraft to touch down on its runway in decades, Cap-Haïtien will soon welcome similarly sized jets at its newly expanded and transformed international airport.
American Airlines began selling tickets on Sunday for daily nonstop service from Miami, starting Oct. 2, making it the first major airline to add Haiti’s second largest city to one of its routes.
“This is a big deal,” said Art Torno, American’s senior vice president of its operations in Mexico, the Caribbean and Latin America. “That area of the country has about 35 percent of the population, and has always been a desirable place for us.”
Torno estimates that between 30 and 35 percent of American’s Haiti-bound passengers traveling from JFK in New York, Miami International and Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International airports currently head north after landing at Toussaint L’Overture International Airport in Port-au-Prince.
Expanding operations outside of the Haitian capital, he said, is not just good for business, it also benefits Haiti’s tourism, currently undergoing an overhaul.
“From a location standpoint, it’s just absolutely perfect to serve that part of the population,” Torno said of the area, which includes Royal Caribbean’s private beach in Labadee and a post-earthquake $300 million U.S.-backed industrial park. “There is a large drive to develop infrastructure there. It’s important for the country; having spent so much time in Port-au-Prince this is another opportunity for economic development in the country, and that will take some pressure off the capital.”
Clinton and her husband, former President and U.N. Special Envoy to Haiti Bill Clinton, visited the area in October 2012, landing within minutes of each other on a newly asphalted 7,500-foot runway, to attend the industrial park’s opening. Their arrival was as much about promoting economic development for the area, as it was about tourism.
“This is an important step toward Haiti’s continued economic growth,” the former president, who had long pushed for a modern airport in the region, told the Miami Herald. “Investors will now be able to easily access industrial parks and a growing number of small businesses in and around Cap-Haïtien, and tourists will be able to visit important World Heritage sites.”
Maryse Pénette Kedar, a former tourism secretary of state who is president of Royal Caribbean’s Haitian subsidiary, also sees American’s expansion as “a major development.”
“This is great news for the northern region, for the people, the diaspora and the business community,” she said. “It is a gate opener and I am happy this is finally happening.”
American Airline’s entry into northern Haiti and the airport’s modernization comes as Haiti pushes to change its tarnished tourism image. Marketing the volatile country as a destination of choice for travelers has been a key focus of President Michel Martelly’s administration. For instance on Sunday, the singer-turned-president hosted the country’s second carnival — the Carnival of Flowers — this year, in the Champ de Mars in Port-au-Prince.
While critics say the impoverished nation, which can’t pay its judges and civil servants, shouldn’t be wasting its meager resources on partying, Martelly said the festivities are a chance to sell a better image of Haiti and attract tourists.
So, too, is the airport in Cap-Haïtien, said Haiti’s Tourism Minister Stephanie Balmir Villedrouin .
The airport, she said, will serve as an international gateway to not only remote pockets of cascading waterfalls and pristine beaches, but also to the monuments telling the story of Haiti’s birth.
“The historical town of Cap-Haïtien, the Citadelle, the biggest fortress of the Americas, and the Palais Sans-Souci, will be less than two hours away from the United States,” said Villedrouin, who this week is set to sign another tourism-related project for the north with Carnival Cruise Lines. “This airport will welcome thousands of visitors looking for a history experience.”
Preparing the airport to handle increased flights, international security protocols and night time landings and takeoffs has itself been an international effort. While financing has come from Venezuela, the U.S. government has provided some security equipment through its law enforcement program, and technical help on security standards from the Transportation Security Administration. American Airlines, which was approached by the Haitian government to fly to Cap-Haïtien, also is stepping in with temporary terminals and other technical help, Torno said.
“We were also asked to partner with the government in terms of planning and execution of the terminal,” Torno said. “It really has come along very nicely.” The airport’s modernization and expansion almost never happened. While work on its perimeter fence started in 2008, former President René Préval landed in hot water in January 2010 with donors for taking out a $33 million loan from the Venezuela Economic and Social Development Bank to modernize the airport, and fund power plants in Port-au-Prince, Cap-Haïtien and Gonaives. In exchange for debt relief from donors, Haiti had agreed to not seek unapproved borrowing.
Nearly five years after Haiti’s tragic Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake, the issue is now a moot point as tourism becomes a key focus of the country’s reconstruction. Hundreds of hotel rooms have been added in the capital, and internationally recognized hotel brands are either operating or being built. The Toussaint L’Overture International Airport, severely damaged in the quake, has undergone a facelift and more airport modernization is in the works around the country. The Cap Haïtien aiport is now called the Hugo Chávez International Airport, after Haiti’s government last year announced the name change, citing the late Venezuelan leader’s support.
Still, making Haiti a tourism destination will take time.
Tourism arrivals were up nearly 18 percent last year, but hoteliers in the capital still complain of empty hotel rooms even as rates drastically drop. Equally disconcerting for Haiti travelers are airline-ticket prices.
“Sometimes, it’s cheaper to take a flight from New York to Paris than from Miami to Port-au-Prince,” said Nicola Bussenius, owner of the 42-room Mont Joli hotel in Cap-Haïtien. “American Airlines coming will give the place the extra credibility. But they can’t come in selling $500 and $600 tickets.”
Bussenius said he would like to see American Airlines drop ticket prices to help spur tourism, but ticket prices shouldn’t be so low that they put smaller carriers that have long operated flights to South Florida, Turks and Caicos, the Bahamas and the Dominican Republic out of business. Torno said pricing is based on market pressures.
“Pricing in every market is dictated by the local conditions,” he said. “When you take a look at the geography, there are some markets that are priced differently in a similar geographic zone due to factors.”
Ticket prices started at $193 per person for a one way economy seat, or $583 for business class.