It becomes apparent that something has changed in Haiti as soon as one crosses the Dajabón-Ouanaminthe border post spanning the macabrely named Massacre River, which separates the country from the Dominican Republic. What used to be a long and arduous odyssey over deeply rutted roads from the frontier to Haiti’s second largest city, Cap-Haïtien, is now an easy hour-long journey over a smooth highway.
For a long time a decaying Caribbean jewel of Spanish-style architecture and gingerbread houses, Au Cap, as the city is known, boasts several standout hotels, including the atmospheric colonial Roi Christophe; the Mont Joli, with its expansive views of the bay; and the Cormier Plage, where guests walk beneath a jungle canopy of singing birds to arrive at the crashing Caribbean sea. Not far from the city, in the village of Milot, is a stunning palace modelled on Versailles and a breathtaking fort to guard it, both built under the orders of Henri Christophe, one of the leader’s of Haiti’s revolt from French rule.
For decades, due to its political unrest, a lack of infrastructure and the disruption caused by the January 2010 earthquake that levelled much of the capital, Port-au-Prince, and its surrounding areas, Haiti was ignored by all but the most intrepid of travellers, and by all but the most committed of investors. However, there are signs that the situation is beginning to change.
Singing to a different tune
Governed since May 2011 by president Michel Martelly, who prior to his political career was known as Sweet Micky, the most famous singer of Haiti’s konpa music, along with prime minister Laurent Lamothe, a wealthy telecommunications entrepreneur, the breakneck pace of economic activity in Haiti today can take even veteran visitors by surprise.
In the village of Caracol, about a 20-minute drive from Cap-Haïtien, an industrial park employs 2700 people, a number it is hoped will eventually rise to 60,000. In 2013, the park, construction on which was only started in November 2011, achieved an output of $28m. Around the park, some 400 homes have been connected to an electricity network for the first time.
“With improved transportation, the port has been working much better. The people in the areas around Caracol are living much better, opening their own commercial ventures and so on,” says Max Edouard Vieux, who works at the park as a representative of the country's Société Nationale des Parcs Industriels. “Things are moving here,” he adds.
Employees at Caracol make 200 gourdes, as the local Haitian currency is known, for a workday lasting from 7am to 4pm. That translates into roughly $5 per day for a six-day working week, or $120 a month, or $1440 a year. These are exceptionally low wages in a country where a beer, for example, costs 50 gourds. However, some at the plant appear glad just to have the opportunity to make any money at all in a region where any sort of wage has been scarce for years, if not decades.
One company to have entered the park at Caracol is South Korean garment manufacturer Sae-A Trading, which supplies US chains such as Gap, Target and Wal-Mart. "After the industrial park opened, it was a big thing for the area,” says Wesley Joseph, a supervisor at Sae-A.
However, a June 2013 report by the US government's Accountability Office questioned the effectiveness of the use of $170.3m in US aid allocated to the park, claiming that results had been “mixed,” and citing problems such as “unrealistic initial timeframes”.
More than 300 kilometres to the south of Caracol, in the historic coastal town of Jacmel, some areas of which were destroyed in the January 2010 earthquake, visitors are now greeted by one of the most charming seafronts in the Caribbean. The scene of Haiti’s most colourful carnival, Jacmel's lush, sedate ambiance contrasts sharply with Haiti's crowded, dusty capital. To the west of Jacmel, along a near-pristine coastline, new hotels are springing up.
“The whole strategy that we put in place two-and-a-half years ago was to reposition Haiti as a tourism destination, after it had been off the tourism map for the past 15 to 20 years,” says Haiti’s minister of tourism, Stéphanie Villedrouin, citing the country’s unique position as a purveyor of some of the region’s most vivid cultural traditions and music to its visual arts to its world-renowned rum and coffee. “The great thing about Haiti is that we have a diversified product,” she says.
By focusing on countries with large Haitian diasporas, such as Canada and the US, but also within the French-speaking Caribbean and beyond (direct flights from the Bahamas, which also has a sizable Haitian diaspora community, are due to start this year), Ms Villedrouin and her team hope to coax an increasing number of visitors to what Haiti’s tourism brochures call “the soul of the Caribbean”.
Haiti has begun working closely with tour operators in North America to promote several different tourist agendas, which include attractions such as a 'Port-au-Prince by night' tour of the capital’s famous nightlife, and breaks at the resorts that skirt the Côte-des-Arcadins, just to the capital's north. In the south of the country, around Île-à-Vache and the Côtes-de-Fer, the government has announced plans to build an international airport, a 1500-room hotel and an 18-hole golf course.
Such moves have not come without controversy, however. Île-à-Vache has been hit by protests against what some local residents believe is the government’s plans to displace them, a controversy that Ms Villedrouin puts down to “lack of communication".
Nor has the country’s improving infrastructure been the only jarring image to come out of Haiti in recent months. Mr Martelly’s public embrace of former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier at an independence ceremony in the northern city of Gonaives in January raised more than a few eyebrows. Long-delayed legislative elections for two-thirds of the country’s senate, the entire chamber of deputies and local and municipal officials such as mayors are scheduled to take place in October, though several political parties have still to sign up to the electoral plan.
Nevertheless, a palpable sense of optimism exists among Haiti’s people, who see progress, however tentative, in a country that many had written off. If the Martelly-Lamothe government can pull off the October elections without major unrest or disputes at the ballot box, Haiti may indeed have a chance to begin attracting the investors and visitors who have shied away in the past.