[7 minute read]
Before continuing I want you to take note of the first thing which comes to mind when you think of Haiti.
Did images of palm-lined Caribbean beaches come to mind? Perhaps you thought of the friendly locals of African descent who call it home? Perchance you visualized a mysterious voodoo ceremony? Or maybe the Creole language – part French, part African – stirred some memory? Did you consider the tourism and business potential of this largely undeveloped yet aspirational nation?
I am willing to bet that you thought of none of that stuff. You see, it’s only every so often that we hear about this small island nation in the news. And it’s always when something has gone terribly wrong. Natural disasters – earthquakes, cyclones, and floods. Poverty. Thousands dead. Diseases spreading. Cholera. Malaria. Displaced peoples, homeless, jobless, and hopeless. Children without parents. Food shortages. No clean water. Desperately in need of your help and donations. We have been conditioned to view this poor nation with sympathy towards their (immense) current problems and apathy to everything else: their history, culture, language, politics, and – most importantly – tourism. Yes, tourism. But more on that later on. You see, the media and international aid organisations have basically relegated the entire country to a permanent humanitarian disaster with no apparent solution in sight. It sure makes it sound like a risky and dangerous place to visit, right?
Well, I won’t blame you if that’s what you thought. Because I had the exact same worries before I just said ‘fuck it’ and decided to put Haiti on my itinerary.
Now, some of Haiti’s early history for more context:
The Caribbean island of Hispaniola (100 km east of Cuba) was first discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492. The following year Spanish settlement began which notably included the introduction of sugar cane and the enslavement of the indigenous Taino peoples. In 1496 Santo Domingo was founded (the capital city of present-day Dominican Republic) which was the first permanent European settlement in the Americas. By 1517 it is believed that only 14,000 of the indigenous Taino peoples remained (down from approximately 750,000). As the local labour population dwindled, African slaves were brought in to keep up the production of cane molasses and sugar. A 1574 census counted 1,000 Spaniards and 12,000 African slaves on Hispaniola.
It was in 1665 that French colonization of the island officially began (having unofficially begun several decades earlier by French buccaneers). This was roughly around the time when Spain was busy reaping the bloody rewards of their successful conquests of the Americas – such as gold, silver, sugar, cocoa, and tobacco. As such, Spain’s interests in Hispaniola were waning and so they officially ceded the western third of the island to the French in the 1697 Treaty of Ryswick. The French part of the island was promptly named Saint-Domingue, after the Spanish side’s Santo Domingo. Over the next century or so the French continued with the proven and highly lucrative business of importing African slaves in order to increase sugar exports to Europe. Then, in 1791, inspired by the recent French revolution of 1789, the plantation slaves organised a resistance movement which eventually succeeded by them gaining unofficial independence from the French on January 1st, 1804.
As one can imagine, the French did not take this significant and embarrassing loss lightly. In addition, Haiti’s neighbours in the USA did not look upon their emancipation favourably as it greatly threatened the status quo of their domestic slave economy. If Haiti wanted to keep its independence it would be made to pay for it – with blood or with debt. As it turned out, in July 1825, the president of France agreed to a treaty with Haiti which would make their independence official. The terms of the treaty were finalised at 150 million francs – during which time Haiti was surrounded by French naval ships threatening invasion if negotiations did not go the right way. This great debt burden as well as the alienation from neighbouring economies would keep Haiti’s own economy from developing for the next century. Despite this, what the Haitians had achieved in their freedom was unprecedented in modern history and is to be lauded.
End of history lesson (check out the more modern history – it’s pretty wild).
In June 2016 I crossed the border into Haiti by bus from the Dominican Republic side – very much against the well-intentioned but mal-informed advice given to me from locals I met in the DR. You see, the Dominicans who were telling me I’d get mugged (or worse) had never actually stepped foot in Haiti before. Regardless of this, I still had the prudence to keep my plans secret from my parents who would have undoubtedly worried unnecessarily. I spent the next week exploring Haiti by first starting in Cap-Haïtien, going down to Jacmel, and finishing in the capital Port-Au-Prince. Yes, I witnessed a lot of poverty, trash, and general listlessness but I also saw the beauty of its nature and the industriousness and generosity of its people. And yes, I definitely experienced discomfort in the sub-par accommodations and while travelling by bus but the overall cultural experiences far outweighed those minor incidents. There are two sides to every coin and you will never fully experience that unless you go to a place to see it for yourself. Plain and simple. So as it turned out the naysayers were totally wrong. Nothing bad happened to me and in fact I had a great time. The weather was great, the food was cheap, there were many things to see, and the culture was fascinating.
While there I definitely saw the potential in developing a local tourism business to cater to foreigners due to the lack of readily available services and basic information. In fact, I see tourism as one of the best ways that locals can take matters into their own hands to combat unemployment, lack of opportunities, and the overall low standards of living. As mentioned at the start of this article, many tourists visiting the Caribbean region (e.g. Cuba, Dominican Republic, Jamaica) have strong misconceptions about Haiti and so simply decide to exclude it from their itineraries as it appears to be too dangerous or difficult to visit. My initial impressions were not dissimilar. In my case I just decided to ‘wing it’ and do a self-guided tour which turned out to be awesome as you can see from the above photos. My Couch Surfing host from Port-Au-Prince, Clemson Saint-fleur, was a great guide around his local area and is now working to boost tourism to his home country through his organisation, Nomad Ayiti. If some of the above history or photos piqued your interest and you’re considering adding Haiti to your to-visit list in the near future then I can highly recommend that you contact Nomad Ayiti and see how they can make your stay more enriching and pleasant, catered to your needs.
Likewise, feel free to contact me with any questions you have.