Yes, go to Haiti, be surprised, enjoy, make a difference

Haiti is humming.

“Why did you go?” or “Were you on a [religious] mission?” were the two questions I repeatedly fielded in talking about my recent Haiti trip.

Haiti needs tourism and I wanted to see it for myself.

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Palace of Sans Souci

I saw tremendous good works by the UN and NGOs, their efforts deserve highest praise, yet commerce is needed for those seeds to flower (see Loyalty Traveler for one such effort). Haiti was once the most prized colonial possession in the Americas, France willing to give up all others to retain Haiti’s sugar. Now it is a black hole in the Caribbean, a place where little information and trade escape, and those on the outside see little in. On my flights there were no wide-girth, receding hairline executives that fill the seats on popular business routes. The few businesspeople were of Haitian origin, the bulk of passengers Haitian families, with a few neon t-shirted missionaries.

On the ground there is tremendous energy. Markets are buzzing atop rubble. Abandoned buildings have been repurposed. It is shocking to arrive in Haiti and see poverty on a mass scale, akin to the impression of first-time visitors to India, but like India, there is bubbling vitality to the cacophony.

My expectations were set low, I discounted the constant negative media portrayal, yet I expected a place with little happening. Two weeks later I toured southwest Dominican Republic, and though I had a fine time, there was none of the buzz of Haiti, bars were causing minor earthquakes with their music, but people were not moving.

Walking from markets to church services on Sunday morning I was invigorated and felt every dollar I spent was making a difference.

The traveler faces challenges typical of developing countries but no more. Safety I never felt was an issue. I walked Cap-Haïtien and Port-au-Prince during the day and took taxis at night. Hotels have tight security. The climate is brutally hot and humid. Roads are in disrepair so flights are the best option for even relatively short distances. Many facilities, like the airports, are works-in-progress. English is not widely spoken. There are frequent power outages but good hotels have generators and power is back in a snap. I was never without power for more than a minute. Dining options are limited and the cuisine was not to my taste, but serviceable.

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Power out...

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..and immediately back on

None of this should deter the dedicated traveler, and plenty of NGO workers were there with families and had no problem touring with children. Like every other country I have visited, Haiti has children, Haitians like children, and so other children can do just fine.

American and Delta are the major US carriers servicing Port-au-Prince, which is the only current international gateway. Tickets are not cheap, typically around $500 and up, but award tickets are widely available. Those wanting to see more of the Caribbean or even connect to France can fly Delta to Port-au-Prince and continue on Air France. Desperate to get to Europe in business class but not finding seats? I bet Air France’s PAP-CDG is wide open. For domestic flights, Tortug’Air is the only airline that seems to be functioning on regular services. Booking online asks for payment but does not actually charge; you pay when you check-in, though the charge still has not hit my credit card. The biggest hassle is going from the international terminal to the domestic terminal, which is about 2 km and requires braving the arrivals throng at international and finding a taxi to get over to domestic.

For hotels, there are no international chains. I stayed in sub-$100 rooms at Hostellerie du Roi Christophe in Cap-Haïtien and Le Plaza in Port-au-Prince. Both were stately and comfortable, with good internet speed and serviceable dining.

Money-wise, USD cash is king. Some places accept credit cards when machines are working, often with a surcharge.

In Cap-Haïtien I walked along the coastal string of forts. Then I chartered a taxi for the day trip to the La Citadelle la Ferrière and Palace of Sans Souci. Public transport is a cheap, rugged all-day alternative. The Citadel is one of the great sights in the Americas and the rough horse ride up past villages is thrilling.

In Port-au-Prince I stayed in the heart of the city and walked all Sunday morning, not willing to pull myself away for a flight. I saw a festive cemetery, the anchor of the Santa Maria, a street race, and much more.

Haiti needs and deserves your tourism. You won’t regret it.

For more information, see my posts on Haiti, my flickr! Haiti Weekend photo album, and read Rebuilding Haiti, and Its Tourism in Travel + Lesiure.

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  • Kevin

    Great post. I hope to follow in your footsteps soon.

  • guera

    Thanks for the review. Haiti is on the list.

  • ClearedCustoms

    Interesting trip. Thanks for reminding us a destination doesn’t have to be popular to be worthwhile.

  • Mona

    I love to read the good reviews by others who give Haiti a chance. I am visiting for my 2nd time next month and will be taking my 12 year old daughter who has never visited a 3rd world country (her last flight took her to Hawaii). I am so excited for her to experience the beautiful people of Haiti. Yes, we will be going as missionaries but have talked of returning for vacation. The beaches are beautiful and the future of their economy certainly depends on people giving them a chance.

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  • John venneman

    While all have different experiences, I have to adamantly disagree with you regarding suggesting people go to Haiti. I have been 16 time since the quake, and in my experience, the place is lawless and human life has no value there. I have had two people stabbed next to me, and just missed several murders. We would be transported in bulletproof cars with pock marks from where the cars were shot at in attempted robberies. A work associate had a hit put on him for $25. $25 dollars is the value of a human life there. We had associates beg to go back to Afghanistan because it was so much nicer and safer than Haiti.

    There have been lots of folks with grand ambitions going down since the quake, with very little to show for it. I would avoid it at all cost.

    Last, if flying Air France out of PAP, be advised that once they close the cabin door, they will fumigate the plane with all the pax in it. It is disconcerting the first time you experience it.

  • @John venneman – thanks for your detailed comment, with a place like Haiti it is indeed critical to consider multiple perspectives and experiences in making a go/no go decision because it is a challenge and I did not intend to downplay that.