“It’s a package,” says Haiti’s glamorous young tourism minister, Stephanie B. Villedrouin, good-naturedly referring to the undeniable and politically incorrect truth that her good looks help with a hideously difficult job.
Villedrouin, who is barely 30, has spent two years selling her impoverished, politically tumultuous, tragedy-scarred country as a tourist destination. In that time, as part of the Haiti hard sell, she has launched a luscious new logo (a red hibiscus superimposed over the sun) with a come-hither tagline (“... experience it!”) that went up last year on a big billboard on a highway running through Miami. She’s pushed through a shiny, live-music-filled terminal at the Port au Prince airport; stitched up Haiti’s first package tour deal in 25 years with one of Canada’s biggest charter carriers; secured expert assistance from Mexico’s tourism development agency; overseen the opening of one luxury hotel and the building of others; and launched 20 tourism development projects across the country. And in late January she attended the laying of the first stone for a new international airport at the picturesque southern seaside town of Les Cayes.
Additionally, she gamely deals with journalists and others who may focus more on her face and figure than her job. Villedrouin, a happily married mother of three, is unembarrassed to be described as a poster girl for Haiti’s most audacious proposition ever: that a country synonymous with poverty and tragedy can seek to give people pleasure. And grow its economy at the same time. “I consider myself a [tourism] technician,” she shrugs, “Haiti can—and should—have some of the Caribbean market, which is 21.5 million tourists per year and is increasing by 4 percent every year.”
The aspiration is supported by an action plan that is lauded as smart and sophisticated even by those who agree with the U.S.’s current hands-off strategy for Haiti’s tourism sector. The target is the sporty tourist, the jaded Caribbean island-hopper from North America and Europe, and most of all, the 4-million strong Haitian diaspora.
Members of the diaspora “are more willing to come,” says Villedrouin, in a frank admission that a Haitian holiday may not live up to its billing. It is a reasonable assumption, and some are literally betting on it. Guy Balan, a former Wall Street investment banker, says his private-equity firm—Haiti’s first and only one—is looking to invest in hotels, resorts, and transportation projects because “a lot of Haitians are coming back, a lot of the diaspora from the U.S. and Canada wants to visit, and there is a strong need.”
Historian and journalist Georges Michel, who remembers Haiti’s tourist heyday when the Clintons honeymooned here, as well as its exclusion from successive Caribbean travel guides, says the tide may be turning to allow for “curiosity tourism.” And travel writer Paul Clammer, who’s just published a guide dedicated to Haiti, says it’s time to reverse foreign visitors’ tendency to see it “as somewhere to save.” Instead, he says, they should gawk at northern Haiti’s imposing mountaintop Citadelle, the largest fortress in the Americas; roam Sans Souci, which he described as “a ruined Versailles in the Caribbean”; and attend voodoo festivals.
Perhaps. But as Michel points out, “Tourists like to visit happy countries,” and Haiti hasn’t been happy for decades. Even a package deal that’s promoted by a rather gorgeous tourism minister may be too much of a hard sell. But it’s a start.
Rashmee Roshan Lall, the former editor of The Sunday Times of India and former BBC World Service presenter, is currently based in Haiti.