PHOTO: Haiti’s Citadelle is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (Photo by Brian Major)
Haiti tourism stakeholders have done much in recent years to re-establish the country’s position on the Caribbean vacation map. American celebrities made Haiti one of the most popular Caribbean destinations during the 1960s and 1970s, but co-island nation's tourism zenith ended with the Duvalier regime’s brutal and ruinous leadership.
Years of political instability, extreme poverty and plain bad luck followed. Finally, with the past decade marked by peaceful democratic government, Haiti is poised to regain its one-time status with a new generation of travelers.
Although not suited to every traveler’s tastes, Haiti is increasingly a must-visit experience for Millennials, adventure- and culture-driven travelers, along with frequent Caribbean visitors seeking something different.
Unfortunately, Haiti has traditionally been presented as a lawless, desperately poor country—an unlikely travel destination.
Most Americans have questions regarding travel to the nation, so here are six answers to consider prior to a first-time Haiti vacation:
Is travel to Haiti safe?
Perhaps the most-discussed concern regarding Haiti travel focuses on security. Generations of Americans have grown up with images of a chronically poor country besieged by violence.
Fortunately, the turbulent political unrest of past years has largely ended, though make no mistake, the country remains poor. Areas of Port au Prince, the capital city, are trash-strewn, and poverty is evident in some regions.
Nevertheless, it’s perfectly safe for a visitor to traverse the city on foot or in a car with a reputable local guide. Haiti has a significant middle class, and visitors will notice residents—from suited business people to everyday workers to students to professionals—are generally moving about, conducting the daily business of living.
As in any large city in the world, visitors should take reasonable precautions while in Port au Prince or other large Haitian cities. But there is no undue safety or security threat to visitors even as the country’s visitor arrivals increased this decade.
Should a leisure visitor seek an escorted tour?
Yes. First-time Haiti visitors should work with a tour operator, not only to ensure their security but also because Haiti is so diverse. With so many worthwhile attractions, the best way to experience what Haiti offers is in the company of an experienced guide.
Tour Haiti (@tourhaiti on Instagram; email Cyril@tourhaiti.net) is led by Jean Cyril Pressoir, a Haitian native and former journalist and producer for international news organizations. His company offers guided “cultural adventure and socially responsible tourism” in the country. Canadian tour operator G Adventures offers several Haiti packages including 10-day tours that feature Port-au-Prince, the artists’ colony in Jacmel and the iconic Citadelle.
Agence Citadelle provides guided excursions across the country using air-conditioned, chauffeur-driven vehicles. Company guides meet and greet travelers at Port au Prince’s Toussaint Louverture International Airport. The company is recognized by the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) and the Association Touristique d’Haiti (ATH) and offers tours, hotel arrangements, restaurant reservations and local transportation in Port au Prince, Cap Haitien, Jacmel, Cotes des Arcadins and other districts.
Are there hotels and resorts that meet Americans' expectations?
There are several Haitian hotels that will comfortably accommodate American travelers. They include properties in Port au Prince and the Petion Ville district, plus several beachfront properties.
An excellent option for business and leisure travelers, the 175-room Marriott Port au Prince is also in many ways a symbol of Haiti’s tourism turnaround.
Opened in 2015 via a partnership that included the Clinton Foundation and Digicel, the property features a restaurant serving a full complement of Haitian breakfast, lunch and dinner selections.
The hotel also offers complimentary WiFi and room service, plus a business center and an Artisan Business Network boutique featuring handmade gifts created by more than 1,600 Haitian artists. Décor features paintings, metal wall art, sculpture and craftwork from 22 local artisans. The collection is curated by Philippe Dodard, a Haitian artist whose work inspired Donna Karan’s spring 2012 collection.
The hotel is within close proximity of several Port au Prince attractions including the Port au Prince Iron Market and the magnificent Musee du Pantheon National Haitien.
Other top hotel and resort options include the family owned Hotel Kinam—which pairs a modern hotel side-by-side with the historic gingerbread-style original property—and the NH Haiti El Rancho, often described by some as the country’s most luxurious resort. The Karibe Hotel and Conference Center, another premium option, is located in Petion Ville. Beachside choices include the Moulin Sur Mer, the Royal Decameron Indigo Beach Resort & Spa (an all-inclusive resort) and the boutique Wahoo Bay Beach Club & Resort.
Is there Internet?
Internet service is widely available in hotels and restaurants.
Can travelers use credit cards?
Credit cards are accepted in larger stores and virtually all hotels. ATM machines are available in most hotels and dispense Haitian dollars, although US currency is also widely accepted.
Haiti offers beautiful beaches, distinctive cuisine and art, plus inspiring cultural and historic attractions.
The country boasts the Caribbean’s foremost art scene, with thousands of craft makers working in an amazing array of media. Port au Prince features several galleries, craft cooperatives and art museums, including the El Saieh Gallery and Artisan Business Network. There are large artists’ colonies in the cities of Jacmel and Noailles.
Haiti’s iconic historic monument, the Citadelle fortress near Cap Haitien, features the world’s largest collection of 19th cannon and artillery. The country’s compelling past is also expertly documented at some of the best museums in the entire Caribbean, including the Musee de Ogier-Frombrum in Côte des Arcadins.
Music lovers can visit the historic Oloffson hotel for the weekly Thursday night concert of the mizik rasin (“root music”) band RAM. Mizik rasin blends Haitian country music with gospel, soul, rap, spoken word and rock influences played on both contemporary electronic and traditional Haitian acoustic instruments.
Haiti is a fascinatingly quixotic country whose history is filled with amazing achievement co-mingled with heartbreaking natural and man-made disasters. Through it all, Haitians have displayed indomitable ingenuity, creativity and resilience.
Visitors are apt to absorb that spirit and discover an amazing array of first-rate cultural, historic and natural attractions.