By Marc Lacey
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There is Haiti, the poorest nation in the hemisphere. And then there
this slice of Caribbean bliss surrounded by security fencing with
This other Haiti has a stunning stretch of white sand between
turquoise water and lush rolling hills. There are jet skis and beach
chairs, and work is under way on a zip line that will send giddy
adventurers across the bay on harnesses at heart-pounding speeds.
On a recent morning, Labadie was filled with several thousand people
just off a Royal Caribbean cruise ship frolicking in the Haitian waves,
bartering in the Haitian craft market and taking in the Haitian voodoo
None of them would experience the rail-thin children, barefoot and
sick; the mounds of garbage and open sewage dumps; the heavily armed
peacekeeping troops struggling to keep a lid on the sprawling urban
"It’s beautiful," said Marlene Peacock, a tourist from Tobermory,
Ontario, gazing up at the forested hills. "I didn’t know it was hilly."
There is much that is unknown about Haiti, says Patrick Delatour,
the country’s optimistic tourism minister, who wants to build on
Labadie and turn the world’s oldest black republic into an important
He realizes, though, that Haiti has a long way to go before it
competes with its Caribbean neighbors, who have much more tourist
infrastructure and much less insecurity than Haiti. While Cuba, the
Dominican Republic and Jamaica have tens of thousands of hotel rooms
each, Haiti has just 850 rooms, down from about 4,000 a quarter century
"I’m fighting an uphill battle," Delatour said. "Haiti is a place
that is in the news and it’s always bad news. We don’t help with the
development of our own reputation."
Some years back, Royal Caribbean downplayed to passengers that they
were visiting Haiti. The stop was referred to as being on Hispaniola,
the island that includes both Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
But the Haitian authorities complained, and the company has been more precise to cruise ship passengers.
Any reservations that visitors have about Haiti seem to disappear
once they set foot on this idealized patch of the country, which the
company calls Labadee.
"You think of Haiti you think of poverty," said Dave Scott, who runs
the resort at Labadie for Royal Caribbean. "You think of violence. You
think of politics. You think of a suppressed people. But when they
actually sail into the bay and they see the pristine sand and the blue
seas and the smiling people, their whole attitude changes."
Royal Caribbean temporarily pulled out of Haiti in 2004 after a
security guard was shot at the front gate to the Labadie property. The
incident was linked to the armed uprising against former President
Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who is now in exile in South Africa. But within
three months, when the country settled down, the cruise ships were back.
Delatour is trying to build on the 20- year relationship with Royal
Caribbean, one of the few bright spots when it comes to Haitian
tourism. The government receives $6 for each of the nearly 40,000
people a month who come ashore at Labadie. And the ships that arrive
keep getting larger, with the biggest cruise ship in the world, Freedom
of the Sea, making regular stops.
But Delatour wants the visitors to go beyond the fencing. One draw
is the Citadelle, a well-preserved mountain fortress dating back to
1817 that still has cannons in place and piles of cannonballs stacked
up, as if awaiting the return of Napoleon’s forces.
Much of the government’s inch-thick master plan for turning the
country into a big-league destination can appear fantastical given the
reality of the country, which is being propped up by international
assistance and still suffers serious bouts of violence, especially in
Port-au-Prince, the capital.
Delatour has dreams for an international airport in the north of the
country, resort hotels dotting the coastline and tourist revenues, now
paltry, shooting through the roof.
Delatour, an architect who specialized in restoring historical
sites, scoffs at the pessimists. Jamaica had severe urban violence even
as its beach resorts bloomed, he said. The key for Haiti, those
promoting tourism here say, is for visitors to avoid the capital for
now and head to some of the more tranquil corners of the country.
"Yes, there is violence in Port-au- Prince," he said. "But you could sleep on the beach in Jacmel and you’d be safe."
Haiti was once a place of thriving resorts. Then the AIDs scare in
the 1980s and the political instability that came with the ouster of
the dictator Jean- Claude Duvalier, known as Baby Doc, in the mid 1980s
scared most people away.
The country had a Club Med — "Magic Haiti" it was called — about an
hour outside of Port-au-Prince from 1975 until 1986. But political
chaos kept it shuttered for nearly a decade. It reopened in 1995, only
to close again a few years later.
Local owners are now attempting to revive the resort but it is peacekeeping troops, not tourists, who fill the beach today.
That is also the case at some of the beach clubs on the north coast.
Armored personnel carriers fill the parking lots on weekends and
soldiers wear bullet proof vests over their bare chests when they head
back to base after a day in the surf.
For now, hotel owners are pursuing niche markets, such as surfers looking for undiscovered waves.
The lack of development along much of Haiti’s shoreline is seen as a plus for some.
"Here you have a virgin coastline, a beautiful coastline you can do anything with," said Scott of Royal Caribbean.
But running a first-class resort in such an undeveloped part of the
earth has its challenges. With no reliable electricity, Labadie has to
rely on massive generators. All food served to the passengers who
disembark is taken from the ship.
On a recent morning, one passenger was cursing at an employee
because he had told her she could not leave the Labadie compound
without signing a waiver and presenting her passport, which she had
left aboard the cruise ship.
Most passengers, however, seem perfectly content to remain on their
isolated cove and get just a passing glimpse of the struggling country.
"I don’t want to see poverty," said Helen Murphy, 66, of St. Paul,
Minnesota, who was shopping with her husband in the tourist market one
morning. "I’m on vacation. I don’t want to think that these people
don’t have enough to eat."