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What if Tourism Held the Key to Haiti’s Future?

On Tuesday, 12 January 2010, a devastating earthquake hit Haiti causing major damage and leaving more than 200,000 dead. Six years later, Haiti is still struggling to recover and is now looking at improving its tourism industry as part of a larger and ambitious project towards sustainable development. Can this new focus on tourism contribute to a smoother recovery process and to finally let Haiti develop into something more than just “the poorest country of the Western hemisphere”?

The project of our grantees Caterina Clerici and Kim Wall, ‘Can Tourism Save Haiti ?’ (published by the Italian daily La Stampa and the French Libération on the 6th anniversary of the earthquake and later by TIME magazine) investigates the government’s approach and how it is affecting the lives of Haitians. To shed light on the work behind the project, we sat down with our grantees, Caterina and Kim, and talked about the reporting process, the current situation in Haiti and the perspective for its future.

How and why did you decide to focus on Haiti and especially to use tourism development as your main angle? Was it difficult to sell this idea to your media partners?

Kim: ‘Haiti started off as a coincidence at the beginning. In November 2014 I had to temporarily leave the U.S. for visa reasons [Caterina and Kim are both based in New York. Ed.]. I mentioned it to Caterina and we started brainstorming about going to Haiti to do a story. We were looking at possible angles and to do something different from the usual stories where Haiti is always portrayed as hopeless and waiting for handouts. The idea of the tourism development stood out because we thought it would be a very interesting way to present Haiti in a different light.

The anniversary of the earthquake is about the only time Haiti is ever in the news and I think that our media partners have perceived our project as a refreshing way to talk about something that has already been covered a lot but always in the same old way.’

Caterina: ‘Moreover, I think that recently there’s been a growing interest from publications to present stories that are counternarratives. We’ve seen a lot of interest in presenting Haiti as more than just the earthquake, the cholera epidemic, the prototype of the failed state that development aid has never managed to solve, and so on. I think that even the idea of presenting Haiti as something else has helped our project to get the editors’ attention.’

Do you think that a different kind of coverage can help to change the perception of the country and have concrete consequences on its future?

Caterina: ‘The thing is that if you always talk about Haiti in the same way, you are basically just educating people to know only certain aspects of the country and of its history. Who will ever be interested in what Haiti could be in the future if media keep defining it only as “the poorest country of the Western hemisphere”?’

Kim: ‘What we found in Haiti was not at all what we expected, being used to the media narrative we mentioned earlier. What we saw on the ground was a lot of national pride in the Haitians (rightfully!) about what their country has to offer. If tourism would succeed in Haiti, if it would be done correctly and sustainably, that could really be an enormous asset for the country. It could really have fantastic economic impact and not just that: it could also be a huge boost for the confidence of a people who have seen in the media nothing but bad news about their country for decades.’

In your story you mention how in the last years the Minister for Tourism and Creative Industries of Haiti, Stephanie Villedrouin, has launched several strong public campaigns aiming to promote tourism in the country. Are the Haitian people actually involved and have they embraced these campaigns?

Kim: ‘No, sadly it looks like the campaigns for tourism development have been imposed top-down by the government and Île-à-Vache is the most extreme example of that. We met several local hoteliers and tour operators who voice their concern about the lack of government support for their businesses. Today the government should maybe get some credit for trying to involve local people but this seems to be happening only after widespread protests, not just on the island but beyond.’

Caterina: ‘And this is very sad, because the strategy is definitely being implemented top-down but the idea of tourism is 100% embraced by the people. They want tourism but they just don’t want the tourism that is going to benefit just a few people who already are in charge and have the money. If you ask any Haitian whether they would want tourism, you don’t get a single no. There are obviously people voicing concerns and saying “we might not be ready for it”, or “we should worry about other things first” but there is a general consensus that tourism would massively help Haiti.’

You point out in your project that international companies are being favored to the detriment of the local small-scale businesses when it comes to investments. What’s the outlook for local entrepreneurs?

Caterina: ‘The projects are mainly involving very specific parts of the population, namely the élite and the diaspora. The initiatives that the Tourism Ministry is focusing on are projects like the Marriott Hotel of Port-au-Prince, which was built in conjunction with the Clinton Foundation. This, while local people involved in the tourism industry are left alone.

For example in Jacmel - supposedly one of the tourism hotspots of the country, - we met a local guy who owns a beautiful tiny hotel that was heavily damaged by the earthquake: and he has not been helped at all. And he was part of the diaspora, someone who left Haiti but then came back to start a business from the bottom and help his country.’

Kim: ‘And at the same time, the government is investing money in gigantic touristic projects, allegedly giving new hotel investors plenty of tax-cuts. Of course this doesn’t mean that the tourism strategy is not benefitting people on the ground - after all even the hoteliers that are not supported by the government would of course benefit from more people coming to the country. But it is very difficult to see how the government can think that the tourism strategy in the shape and form as it is now could genuinely help Haitians on anything more than a trickle-down level.’

In parallel with the touristic projects, have you noticed any improvements of the social services and infrastructure that were destroyed by the earthquake, such as schools, libraries or hospitals?

Caterina: ‘After the protests on Île-à-Vache, the government has realized that it was a good idea to put something that people really need on top of the resorts and now the two development parts - touristic projects and social infrastructures - go hand in hand. It did come only as an afterthought but at least now rebuilding or building new clinics and community centers is presented by the government as an integral part of the development plan.’

Kim: ‘But Haiti is still lacking so much in infrastructures. Many tour-operators and tourist stakeholders we talked with really hope that tourism can be an incentive to sort these things out: to get better roads, new hospitals, et cetera. I don’t know if this is overly optimistic but hopefully tourism can really provide this kind of incentive to the government.’

To develop this project you travelled twice to Haiti. What kind of improvements, if any, have you seen between the two visits? What about the near future, do you have certain expectations?

Caterina: ‘In very practical terms, the biggest change we saw from the first trip to the second was definitely that the Marriott Hotel in Port-au-Prince has been finished. Then also the construction site near the airport on Île-à-Vache is developing and there were a lot more clinics and signs saying “here is what the Tourism Ministry is doing for you”. The same in Jacmel, a sort of cultural capital of Haiti, where they have also built a tiny Tourism Centre next to the beach.’

Kim: ‘In terms of future improvements, at the moment is very difficult to make any prediction because of the uncertainties related to the election chaos [Presidential elections were held in Haiti on 25 October 2015. With no candidate receiving a majority of the vote in the first round, a runoff was to be held on 27 December 2015 but it has been postponed to 24 January 2016 and then again indefinitely just two days before voters were due to go to the polls. Ed.]. Whatever government comes to power, it will be important to see if and how they will maintain what Villedrouin has started - and she really did get something rolling there - especially if she won’t be involved in it anymore.’

What challenges did you encounter during the reporting on the ground and what can you tell us about your own experience as reporters but also part-time tourists in Haiti?

Kim: ‘Haiti is probably the most authentic place I’ve ever been to. You definitely don’t feel like anyone is putting on a show for you as a tourist, which is unusual. One of the main challenges is for sure the lack of infrastructure, that basically is just not there. What might surprise, considering the Haiti’s reputation, is that we felt really safe throughout our stay there and never got the sense of it being a dangerous place.’

Caterina: ‘I think our biggest take-away is that Haiti is a very different place if you take the time to get around and explore it independently. On our first trip we went there for only four and a half days and to see as much as we could we hired a car with a private driver. When you travel that way, especially being two white women in the back of a car, you perceive this feeling of insecurity that doesn’t necessarily match with the reality. In fact, the second time there we often walked with local people around the slums and we didn’t perceive any danger. Aid workers will tell you that you are not going anywhere if you are not on the pick-up with the huge UN sign on the back but it’s actually really not like that.’

Are you satisfied with the final outcome of your project? Is there anything that in retrospect you would have prefered to approach in a different way?

Kim: ‘We had very big and ambitious expectations of how this would look visually, with infographics and custom-made platforms, but didn’t realize how difficult that is to do for many publications. Also, being based in New York, we have been working remotely with our editors, never meeting in real life: I can imagine it being a different experience if we were in Europe and able to be more involved in the editing process.’

Caterina: ‘Another take-away is to remember (and embrace!) that there is going to be compromise between what you initially envisage and the outcome. When you work on projects like these, that you've put a lot of thinking and efforts into, you want to make sure they reflect what you initially had in mind. The result, however, is always going to be filtered by what the editors want. Most of the time this makes the project better, but also different. In retrospect, to make sure our project lived "somewhere" on the web exactly as we envisaged it, I'd reconsider the option of building a stand-alone micro-site. I was initially skeptical of the idea, as I think micro-websites often require more time and resources to put together than what they're eventually worth in terms of traffic, but at least they let you have complete control over the final look of the project.’

What kind of impact do you expect your story to have and what is the key element that you would like the reader to keep?

Caterina: ‘Honestly, just getting the readers and the viewers to think that Haiti is a normal place would be a success for us. We would obviously hope to help influence a little bit in a positive way the strategy that the Tourism Ministry is enforcing but that’s a very ambitious goal.’

Kim: ‘Haiti has an enormous potential that in a very frustrating way is not being fulfilled. What we have tried to do is to emphasize this potential over the usual narrative on Haiti and to provide a little bit of nuance. The message is that developing the tourism industry is a great idea but only if implemented in the right way: it has first and foremost to benefit the Haitians and improve their living conditions.

An interview by Mattia Peretti, Project Coordinator at the European Journalism Centre in Maastricht.

Photos © Caterina Clerici, Kim Wall

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