Conventional wisdom says smart travelers should stay away from Haiti, a nation racked by corruption, instability and poverty, but the consul general in Atlanta says his country is seeking “intellectual tourists” who can see its broader narrative beneath the rubble of the past few years.
Gandy Thomas admits that Haiti can be daunting without proper on-the-ground help. But he’s convinced that the radiance and hospitality of his fellow Haitians, the beauty of the island and its engaging history can overcome the dark spots – given the right tourist package, of course.
“It’s still difficult in Haiti, but we can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Mr. Thomas told Global Atlanta in an interview.
He was candid about Port-au-Prince, the capital city, which he called somewhat of a “mess” for visitors. But he spoke positively of the northern coastal town of Cap Haitien. It’s home to a Spanish-era ruins, as well as a citadel and palace built by Henri Christophe, an early leader of the Haitian slave rebellion and revolution. Royal Caribbean cruise liners stop every week at the secluded beach resort of Labadee, and nonstop flights have started coming in from Miami.
Mr. Thomas has been promoting packages that allow tourists to mix visits to the historic sites of the Citadelle LaFerriere or the Sans-Souci Palace with island-hopping in small boats manned by private chefs who can grill fresh-caught seafood on demand.
Indeed, it’s a long way from crowded, gray Port-au-Prince, which was devastated by a 2010 earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people. Five years later, Mr. Thomas said Haiti wants to shake the image that it’s just a poor backwater with nothing to offer the outside world.
Rather than being defined by what happened, “We are moving forward,” Mr. Thomas said.
On Dec. 11, the fourth annual Gouts et Couleurs d’Haiti, or Colors and Flavors of Haiti, will feature the AYIKODANS dance troupe, which has performed all over the world, showcasing the diverse blend of African influences present in the Caribbean nation. The show, mixed with a sampling of the island’s diverse creole cuisines, is slated to give Atlantans a different view of a country known more for hosting missionaries than parties. “Haiti isn’t only what you see on TV,” Mr. Thomas said.
Still, challenges are mounting for the country. Haiti is now on the verge of a political crisis, having failed to hold elections since 2011. Calls for President Michel Martelly to step down are growing, as are protests to his rule.
But that hasn’t completely dampened investment enthusiasm. Mr. Thomas has personally led nine small trade missions from Atlanta with groups of three or four potential investors at a time exploring targeted opportunities. In the north, near Cap Haitien, lies the Caracol Industrial Park, a $300 million project backed by U.S. Agency for International Development that was supposed to revitalize the region with 60,000 new jobs. So far, a Korean multinational, SAE-A, is the anchor tenant, making t-shirts for export to the U.S. under legislation that relaxes tariffs for Haitian-made textiles. An Atlanta-based firm, SAFI, is reportedly looking into the park, which has grown slower than many expected.
Other regions and sectors are also showing signs of life. Surtab, a Haitian-based manufacturer of tablet computers, has set up shop in another industrial park in Port-au-Prince, selling to the local population and the export market. Major hotel brands have poured more than $100 million into the country. Mr. Thomas has helped other textile firms and agribusiness companies take a look at Haiti. Coca-Cola Co. operates a mango farm set up to provide jobs after the earthquake, and its local bottling partners are hiring more people, making the Coke system one of the largest employers in the country. Delta Air Lines Inc. in December is set to upgrade its weekly nonstop Atlanta-Port-au-Prince flight to a daily connection.
All that shows that while there are still difficulties, business is not impossible for those who go through the appropriate channels and adapt their mindset to the local situation.
Mr. Thomas said the same adage applies to business as tourism: “You have to get out of your comfort zone to get into your comfort zone. It’s worth it.”
As a side note, he said Georgia is benefiting from its own Haitian historical connection. Thousands of Haitian visitors to Savannah have stopped in to see a monument devoted to Haitians who fought with American rebels and French forces in the revolutionary war against the British. One of them, a young Henri Christophe, would return from that skirmish to lead his own revolt in Haiti that threw off French rule.
Visit www.colorsofhaiti.org for more information or to purchase tickets for the Colors and Flavors of Haiti event. Use the code HA2014 for a 20 percent discount.