Sans-Souci in the Caribbean: Haiti wants tourists back (Feature)
By Franz Smets Apr 24, 2010, 2:00 GMT
Cap Haitien, Haiti - The site is symbolically charged: The Cap Haitien citadel is visible from far away, with hundreds of cannons aimed at the sea.
In the mid-20th century, Haiti was a popular tourist destination. The country that shares the Caribbean island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic had beautiful beaches, a vibrant culture and delectable food.
At the time, Haiti also offered something unique, a sort of 'Africa in the Caribbean.'
Today, as the country seeks to rebuild after the devastating January 12 earthquake, tourism is likely to take on a key role. Cap Haitien, in the north, and Jacmel, in the south, are to be billed as major attractions.
And yet the necessary infrastructure is currently missing.
In 1804, Haiti became the first independent country in the Americas.
Cannons at the Cap Haitien citadel, with its metre-thick walls atop the 910-metre-high Bonnet-a-L'Eveque hill, were intended to prevent French forces from returning to take back their former colony in the 19th century. The French never returned, and not one of these decorated pieces of artillery was ever fired.
Over weekends, hundreds of descendants of slaves brought in from Africa visit the site, and the ruins of the Sans-Souci palace on their way up the mountain. Over a picnic, many enjoy the great views, and particularly a green scenery of mango fields and banana and sugarcane plantations that is rare in Haiti.
The large fort and the impressive palace were both built under the self-proclaimed King Henri Christophe I (1811-20). Since 1982 they have been a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site.
Former US president Bill Clinton - now a UN special envoy to Haiti - visited the area in December last year, with a view to promoting tourism there with US businesses.
'Tourism must provide the initial spark for northern Haiti's development,' said Broder Schuett, a businessman who is also the sixth-generation German general consul in Cap Haitien.
There, far from the earthquake-ravaged capital Port-au-Prince, an increasing number of business people show up with an interest in developing the area's potential for tourism.
But almost everything is missing. The road to Cap Haitien from Port-au-Prince is in a sorry state along most stretches. In several places it has been washed away by flooding. Travellers have to take detours over the hills or across pools of water.
In Cap Haitien there are a few small hotels, which date back to better days. And there is a boardwalk with restaurants. To talk of port facilities would be an exaggeration, in the light of the slums and the crumbling buildings they hold.
Nearby, cruise ships regularly stop in the walled beach resort of Labadee.
'We want to do more to bring passengers up to the fort,' said Schuett, the local representative of the cruise company Royal Caribbean.
There is an easier way to reach northern Haiti, other than from the Haitian capital. The Dominican border is only 40 minutes away, because the European Union built a modern road to Cap Haitien. It is one of only a few roads in Haiti that have road signs that alert drivers when the road is about to get narrower and tell them to respect certain speed limits.
Jacmel, in Haiti's southern coast, can be reached from Port-au- Prince on a paved road. Currently, however, mudslides caused by the January earthquake and its many aftershocks are an obstacle to the trip.
Jacmel, with its French colonial-style houses overlooking the sea, was seriously affected by the earthquake. But it too wants to become a success story.
'Jacmel can become a picturesque, small French town in the Caribbean,' said Haitian Central Bank governor Charles Castel. 'We will promote tourism's return here.'
In Jacmel, people are busy trying to free themselves from a history of disaster. School lessons have started again, sometimes in makeshift wooden buildings in the outskirts of the town. And small hotels and seafood restaurants are opening on the beautiful beaches east and west of the centre.
Thomas Oriental's mask shop on the heavily damaged beach walk was also devastated by the earthquake, as a side wall and portions of the roof collapsed. Now, young artists are painting more pictures and fixing the damaged masks.
This Haitian store owner, for one, is not very hopeful that tourists from around the world will soon start pouring into Haiti. The task at hand is massive.
'I need a loan in order to be able to survive with my shop,' Oriental noted.
And he expects no help from the authorities: 'They were themselves victims of the earthquake.'