Ravaged by natural disasters and poverty, Haiti is nevertheless trying to revive its tourism industry. Here, the process begins with voluntourism.
Rebuilding Haiti, and Its Tourism
None of my friends could imagine actually wanting to go to Haiti. All most of them knew of the country was what they’d read about in headlines: the 2010 earthquake that had killed some 100,000 residents and devastated millions of homes; the cholera epidemic that had subsequently swept through the population; the decades of political corruption and economic hardship that had relegated Haiti to its standing as the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. People like me, it seemed, went to Haiti not out of interest but out of a sense of obligation—to join the ranks of the estimated 10,000 relief organizations operating on the ground there.
But I’d heard other stories about the country too—ones that had piqued my curiosity as well as my desire to lend a hand. Haiti had dazzling and unspoiled landscapes, sweeping beaches, and verdant mountains that had given it the nickname “The Pearl of the Antilles” during its heyday in the pre-Duvalier 1950s. And the island’s distinctive cultural traditions—art, music, cuisine, and voodoo-infused spiritualism—made it unique among Caribbean nations.
I’d learned about these draws through a somewhat surprising recent campaign to brand Haiti as a vacation destination. Haiti’s Ministry of Tourism has thus far allotted some $450 million to this effort, and launched a splashy new logo and slogan inviting visitors to “Experience It!”—promoted, of course, on its new Twitter feed and Facebook page.
But the tourism push isn’t just internal. Several major chain hotels, including a Marriott, an Occidental, and a Best Western, have plans to create some 2,000 new hotel rooms in Haiti in the coming year. A small herd of A-listers, including Bill Clinton and Donna Karan, have been devoting time and money to promote Haiti as a hub of cultural riches. And in November, British imprint Bradt Travel Guides plans to release the only English-language Haiti guidebook to publish since the 1980s. According to Bradt’s publishing director, Adrian Phillips, “tourism has a key role in the process of rebuilding Haiti…our hope is that this guide will play its part.”
How, I wondered, did these radically different ideas of Haiti jibe? Could the country really support an influx of foreign travelers when, almost two years after its disastrous earthquake, 500,000 residents were still living in tent cities?
Exploring this question, I knew, would require traveling to Haiti myself. And since I was both unfamiliar with the Creole language and wary of traveling alone in a developing country, it made sense to go with a group. But choosing the right outfit was a dizzying proposition. The profusion of volunteer-assisted development organizations operating in Haiti—ranging from church mission groups to grassroots art collectives to renowned multinational corporations like Partners In Health—had prompted the American media to coin a nickname for the country after the earthquake: “the Republic of NGOs.” And, in a sign that Haiti is already moving toward commercial tourism, there were newer travel opportunities too—ones with more of an educational focus, like nature photography, yoga workshops, and art festivals.
One option I didn’t have: mainstream tour companies, which aren’t offering itineraries yet. But since there was so much rebuilding to do, it seemed the best interim step for experiencing the country was through voluntourism. So I chose a nine-day trip with a small Boston-based tour operator, Elevate Destinations, which combined volunteer work (with Let Haiti Live) and trips to some of Haiti’s most famous attractions (Jacmel’s art galleries, southern-coast beaches, waterfall-fed forest pools). I especially liked that Elevate Destinations required trip participants to spend several weeks fund-raising before the trip; that meant that the money we raised (about $10,000) would cover all the building and educational materials we’d be using, as well as our own food and transport. No one in Haiti, in other words, would have to put themselves out for us.
“Bucket!” a deep, Creole-inflected voice sang up to me. “BucketBucketBucket!”
From where I stood, partway up a steep, crumbling dirt hillside on the south coast of Haiti, the owner of the voice was invisible. But then Ernst, a tall young man with bare shoulders like gleaming obsidian, rounded a stand of boulders just below me. From his hands swung two plastic five-gallon buckets, each heavy with rocks. Grinning, he thrust the buckets up toward me; I took them, staggering a little from their weight. Luckily, I had to lurch only about a dozen steps up the hill before handing them off to the next person on line.
It was the fourth day I’d spent on the hillside, in the small village of Cyvadier overlooking the sapphire-blue Bay of Jacmel. Each morning, before the late-July temperatures climbed above 100 degrees, some 25 locals and visiting American volunteers gathered at the base of this 400-foot slope. There sat a giant heap of rocks, next to a dirt trail that snaked up between slabs of porous stone, flowering shrubs, munching goats, and yellow butterflies. Our task was simple, and Sisyphean: move the rocks from the bottom of the hill to the top.
At the summit, a local community-building organization called Let Haiti Live had its headquarters. The compound consisted of two cement buildings—where dozens of village children attended classes in agronomy and environmental conservation—and a small lean-to where cooks prepared meals for the kids over an open charcoal fire. Our pile of rocks would form the walls of a new kitchen—one that could feed more kids, more ecologically and safely.
A backhoe could have done the job in an hour, if there had been a backhoe—and a road for it to drive on, and cash to pay the driver. But since there were none of those things, we had strung ourselves each day along the trail and, sweating through our clothes in the punishing heat, passed the load bit by bit, like an old-time fire brigade putting out a blaze.
The project, in the scope of things, was tiny; the effort required to achieve it, huge. But this, it seemed, was the way that things got done in Haiti: the hard way.