Investing in tourism has been controversial within the Haitian community, with many questioning whether investments should be made in infrastructure and curbing corruption instead. This latest move by Expedia and Orbitz, brings the question back into focus, leaving some wondering whether Haiti’s recent political instability has given credence to the belief that Haiti is not ready for tourism.
By Vania Andre
Following more than a week of protests in Port-au-Prince, several online booking sites, such as Orbitz and Expedia, have removed Haiti from their travel options, citing Haiti’s airport as “illegal.” When users search for Haiti, either an error message appears, or an alert prompting users to enter a new city name or airport code shows.
“We are always looking ahead at global events that might impact the safety and wellbeing of travelers,” said Expedia Group, one of the world’s leading travel companies, with an extensive brand portfolio that includes Orbtiz and Expedia, in a statement to the Haitian Times.
“Relevant government agencies’ travel advice for Haiti are now at a level of travel concern because of crime and violent demonstrations, and we have stopped selling booking options – such as flights and hotels – to and in Haiti. This ‘stop sell’ will remain in effect until the situation in Haiti improves and travel advice changes. Once governmental advice reaches a certain level of travel concern, we take action to close off destinations on our sites.”
Over the last decade, Haiti officials and business leaders have pushed an agenda that promoted Haiti as a destination that was “open for business”and a prime location specifically for those in the tourism sector. However the recent decision, coupled with continuing political instability in the country has the potential to undo some of the gains Haiti has made in tourism and gives credence to those who believe that Haiti is not ready for tourism.
“Right after the earthquake, Haiti gained attention and curiosity around the world, which the past two governments have built upon to put Haiti back on the touristic map,” Carlo Chancelien, founder of Le Jetsetter a travel consulting agency. “Part of that effort was to define a country brand for Haiti, and facilitate the landing of international hotel chains like Marriott, Best Western, NH Hotel Group etc.”
Between 2012 and 2015, the elite suburb of Petion-ville, became home to Royal Oasis and Best Western, Port-au-Prince to the Marriott, while Spain-based Royal Occidental Hotels & Resorts transformed the former Club Med and Club Indigo to the new Royal Decameron Indigo Beach Resort and Spa in Cote des Arcadins.
The tourism push by the Martelly administration and former Minister of Tourism Stephanie Villedrouin was a successful one with growth in the double digits in 2015. However critics argued investments should have been made first toward infrastructure and then tourism.
“The tourism sector has benefited a lot since Minister Villedrouin arrived at the ministry. At this point tourism was a priority sector and she worked hard to put Haití back on the map,” said Raina Forbin, vice president of the Haiti Tourism Association. However, “today the sector is at its worst.”
Forbin, who is also a tour operator for Explore Haiti, likened Expedia’s position to placing an “embargo” on the country.
“This Expedia position is definitely unfair and unacceptable. It’s like they are putting embargo on Haití without calling it that,” she said. “The travel warnings from the United States, at a level 4 is putting Haití along with countries that are in war. Really, that is absurd.
“Since July we’ve all suffered from cancellations and bad press. Many operators are running with less than 10 percent utilization and occupancy. Some hotels have closed down, while some other operators have had to let go of their employees. The planes are coming in with 10 -20 passengers. We are hurting.”
On Feb. 14, the State Department issued a level four travel advisory for Haiti, urging Americans not to travel to Haiti due to “crime and civil unrest.”
“The whole sector is at risk now,” Forbin said. “We will not be able to last long with those measures.”
While the travel advisory and Expedia’s and Orbitz’s decision is a hard one for the industry, it’s a move Chancelien understands.
It may be an “exaggerated” measure from the State Department, however considering the “country’s main international airport is located right in the middle of Port-au-Prince” — the epicenter of the protests — it makes it even more difficult to ensure visitors’ safe arrival and departure in Haiti.
In fact, last week group of Canadian missionaries had to charter a helicopter to guarantee their safe passage from Royal Decameron Indigo Beach Resort and Spa to the Toussaint Louverture International Airport in Port-au-Prince. In the days prior, there were reports of armed gangs stopping vehicles on the roads, demanding money to allow cars to pass.
“Expedia’s decision is an automatic response to the current situation of Haiti. If the situation remains, it’s clear that the financial cost for Haiti will be important,” said Enomy Germain, a Haiti-based economist.
After five years of investment, the tourism industry has been an “important driver of growth in Haiti” and has contributed to the global GDP “considerably.”
“The decisions of Expedia and co will affect [the tourism] industry in the country.”
According to Germain, if the situation in Haiti doesn’t improve, the country will not be able to reach their growth goals for 2019. He also noted that tourism brings the American dollar into Haiti’s economy, and without this contribution, the exchange rate will rise and so will inflation.
“Life won’t be easy here,” he said, and if it stays like that, “poverty and hunger will win.”
The tourism sector in Haiti not only employs many people, but it also generates revenue for the country and supports other sectors such agriculture and local production, Forbin said.
“We can not let a small group of people destroy the image of our country that we’ve worked too hard too preserve,” she said.
Germain and Chancelain don’t believe all hope is lost.
“If the country improves its social and political environment, tourists will come back in the country as usual and the cost will be attenuated,” Germain said.
“Tourism is all about perception,” Chancelain said, “so it may take several years for Haiti to regain its space on the touristic map of the world.“Haiti will need to earn the [international community’s] trust again, but until then, this may be a great opportunity for the government to focus on local tourism (staycation) and try to attract the Diaspora to visit their home.”