By Alexander Britell
After years of neglect, Haiti’s tourism sector is picking up steam again — with new flights from companies like JetBlue and the addition of tour packages for the first time from outlets like Canada’s Transat. While the industry continues to grow, a number of companies have already been on the ground for some time, like Belle Vue Tours, led by Guerline Emmanuel and her husband Hogarth. To learn more about Haiti’s budding travel industry and the experience of tour operators, Caribbean Journal talked to Emmanuel about the growth of tourism, safety and security and Haiti’s potential as a destination.
What first brought you to start the company?
Well, first of all, I’m from Haiti and I came here when I was approximately eight years old, so [my husband] and I grew up here. We have traveled to different places over the years and we love the Caribbean — so we’ve been to Jamaica, the Bahamas, Mexico and other places — and after a while, when we had children and we started traveling again we realized that everywhere we’ve been doesn’t compare to Haiti. Haiti has so much to offer. Of course I’m biased because I’m Haitian, but when you go to Haiti, you have the culture, the music, the food. Apart from that, we have such a rich history that I think is important not just to Haiti but to everyone all over the world. So I wanted to share that, something you can’t find anywhere else but in Haiti. So for me, we have the beaches, we have the sun, we have the music — our art is distinguished — as soon as you see it, you know it’s Haitian art. It’s totally different. And of course our history — 1804 makes us different, it makes us unique. I think that’s what’s sustained us all these years.
What are some of the places you highlight in Haiti on your tours?
We spend a lot of time at BV Tours learning about the places that we travel to. But we have done the research, and found the best possible guides that we have right now — the ones that will give you the inside knowledge you probably won’t see on your own from one town to the next. So we offer the knowledge that we have spent the last 8 years perfecting. We want you to experience Haiti, with all your senses, all of the other little things that make our trips unique that you will probably miss on your own.
How do you see Haiti’s tourism sector today?
They have placed a greater emphasis on tourism in Haiti. Because like myself, they probably feel that what we have is unique. But we want to share it. I think that 2010 was a wakeup call. Because we were always saying, “when Haiti gets better,” and then we realized with 2010 that we are the ones who will make Haiti better. And I think a lot of us have said, “ok, this is what Haiti is,” and wanted to show the beauty that has been overshadowed by all of the negative things that you have heard over the years. So I think there are a lot of people — Belle Vue Tours, MyHaitiTravels, Zoom Sur Haiti, Haiti Tourism, Inc., there’s a whole culture of people now individually and as a group that have pushed and said, “wait a minute, we have just as much and more than the other places that you have seen, and we are tired of all the negative press.” When you look at the statistics, we are not as bad as they make us out to be. We want people to see first hand that, yes, Haiti is worthy of people visiting. We want to take ownership of our country back, and tourism is one the ways we can show all the beautiful places that Haiti has to offer.
What do you tell people who may have concerns about security?
Haiti has crime like everywhere else. Perception and reality are two different things. So we have a lot of hard work and challenges, and they’re working on that. But as far as the crime statistics, Haiti has less crime when you compare it to a lot of the other tourism destinations in the Caribbean. So when you look at statistics, Haiti doesn’t have any more crime than we have in the countries that have a lot of tourists, like Mexico, Jamaica. But one of the things people should realize is that when you travel with a group of people, you minimize your risk as far as security. And like anywhere else, when you go to Manhattan you need to be aware and make smart choices when you travel. So what we have done is spend a lot of time on the pre-travel documents that we sent out to clients, to let them know that there are certain things you can do to minimize your risk. We have a marketing booklet that details the itinerary, and we also enroll our trips in the Smart Travelers programme with the United States, so the government knows where you are located. And we accompany you from the moment you land.
“I think that, five years, 10 years down the road, we will be one of the most competitive touristic destinations. If we continue the way we are going, Haiti will be one of the places that people will be clamoring to go and visit.”
Who would you say are the main customers you’re looking to attract?
I think Haiti’s market is the Haitian diaspora, who probably left a long time ago like myself. So when people say, “well, I don’t have any family members here to whom I’m close to go and visit — I haven’t been for 30 to 40 years,” that’s a potential client. I think other potential clients we have are children of Haitian descent, whether they have one or both parents from Haiti, or they have never gone back. For example, I went to a networking event and one of the young ladies I met was someone whose mother had passed away, originally from Gonaives, and she would like to go. But she was hesitant to go — so she is a client for 2014. Another potential customer for Haiti is anyone who has heard about Haiti — African-Americans, French-Canadians. Because you don’t need to be a descendant of Haiti directly to be a client of Haiti. Because if you know the history of Haiti, or have friends that are Haitian.
Do you see Carnival becoming a bigger attraction for travelers?
I definitely believe so. And that’s one of the things we are banking on for 2014. Because when Belle Vue Tours offers Haiti travel, it’s not just going to the beach. Kanaval in 2014 in Gonaives, you’re going to actually be in the places where we signed for our independence in 1804. To me, that’s significant. You will not only be in Gonaives, but you’ll have the opportunity to go to the different forts in the area — you’re not far from the Citadelle. It won’t just be another day in Haitian carnival. It will be an opportunity to learn about the history of Haiti, to learn about Haiti’s significance in the world, what we stand for — everything is at your reach. So at night you’ll have carnival and have a great time. In the day, you’re right here to experience Gonaives. So it’s not just about beaches — it’s about what makes Haiti unique.
What is Haiti’s potential as a tourism destination down the road?
I think that, five years, 10 years down the road, we will be one of the most competitive touristic destinations. If we continue the way we are going, Haiti will be one of the places that people will be clamoring to go and visit, because we offer more. You can find things anywhere – and about 20 years down the road, I think we will be the place to be.