"Tours to Haiti" Open For Business
The economy of every Caribbean country, from Cuba to Curacao, depends to a certain extent on tourism. The question is not whether Haiti can benefit from tourism so much as where, how, and to what degree. In order to learn more about the potential for tourism in Haiti, we caught up with Patrick Smyth, founder of Tours to Haiti. The interview, as well as a link to the website and contact information, follows.
1) How did you become involved with Haiti?
I first became involved with Haiti when I met a pastor while answering a sales call. He wanted his gutters fixed and called my firm to put in a bid. The Pastor, Dr. Britt Minshall (see www.allonefamily.org), said he felt he had a calling to become involved in Haiti, so he began leading trips for parishioners to visit several orphanages that a Haitian pastor, whom Britt met at a conference in Texas, had formed. Britt invited me on each of the trips, but I was (at that time) concerned about whether I and my family would be safe there. Judging from television, Haiti seemed like it was crime-ridden and unsafe - but now I know this was not the case at all.
After each trip, the parishioners that went had only praise for the character of the people and the beauty of the countryside. And, yes, they confirmed that it was poor, but that they felt safe amongst the people. So, this convinced me that I might be misinformed by what my government and the media had been telling me about Haiti.
When I arrived in Haiti, I felt accepted. I didn't see any animosity toward me because I was a foreigner; I saw no indications of bigotry or anything like that. Instead, I saw very hardworking and industrious people attempting to make it on very little. I could see that they were ingenious in taking things that we would normally discard in our country, as trash, scrap or garbage, and turning them into something useful. They seemed as adept at this as a Generation Nexter is at wowing us with their computer know-how, which they acquire at a young age.
I succumbed to Haiti and accepted an invitation to return for a week in June, 2002 to spend time with some new-found friends. Since then, I have been back 21 other times, ranging from 3 days to 3 weeks. I have traveled to so many areas of Haiti that friends of mine in the Haitian Diaspora (Haitians living outside of Haiti) joke that I know Haiti better than they do.
It was on my second trip that I actually discovered what really attracted me to Haiti. I was midway through my week of vacation in Jacmel, a southern seaside town that sits tranquilly overlooking the Caribbean Sea. I saw a middle-aged woman on her way to market, like so many of the other people that morning. I could see in her eyes, face and mannerisms, a strength of character, dignity and pride as she walked quite erect and purposefully through the sun-drenched street, in her white dress, dabbled with green polka dots. It occurred to me that Haitian dignity and pride was something that no one seemed to be talking about, at least not in the media.
That having been said, I saw and heard it again and again with the friends I made and people with whom I spoke throughout the country. There is an inner strength that became apparent to me as I watched Haitian women, the hardest working people in the country, carry their bundles upon their heads, traveling many miles to market, up hills and down again. It is not without reason that "Ayiti" translates from Taino to "mountainous place." People never looked down or up at me, only being with me.
I began to investigate why they are who they are and inquired as to how I could help the rest of the world learn about them as they are in life, not as they are in the media. This is the work of transformation, not change. Since I have answered these questions for myself, over the last 8 years, I formed Tours to Haiti to entice the rest of the world to discover the reality of Haiti and its people.
B) Why is tourism important to Haiti? Could this be a growth industry?
A certain type of tourism is important to Haiti. The kind you find in most of the other Caribbean islands, where tourists are sequestered from the populations and seem only to be there to forget their life for a week or two is not the kind of tourism that will enrich Haiti. Au contraire, Haiti is a place where you will want to meet the people and vice versa. Haitian customs, cuisine, and hospitality are second to none and they are best discovered among the people, not in isolation from them. This is why we offer immersion tours.
One sees Haitians on television most frequently during times of political turmoil in Port au Prince. The transition to democracy has not been easy for those whose ancestors led the first successful slave revolt in history, but it is happening. They know the contributions of their forebears in the global fight against slavery and as they seek to regain their self-determination and they keep moving toward that goal.
Here in the United States, our ancestors fought against a country that would not honor our financial rights. The Haitians also fought against an empire - one that thought white makes right. Haitians beat the armies of France, Britain and Spain to prove their point. They are the first people to declare in their constitution that all men and women, no matter what color, creed or place of birth are entitled to their freedom. Despite the economic blockade thrust on them by the "civilized" world, Haitians were able to finance and arm Simón Bolívar in his battle for independence of many South American countries. When the Dominican Republic, conquered by Haiti to rid the entire island of Hispaniola of the Spanish slave holders, sought its freedom, Haiti granted it without bloodshed.
It is a unique and compelling history. Tourism will bring a new understanding, while also bringing an influx of cash into the country. Right now, about one-fourth of the Gross National Product is sent to them by relatives and friends in the form of remittances from abroad. Other streams of funding come from charities and faith-based groups, as well as foreign assistance from partner governments. When foreign assistance is poorly thought out, it can potentially create dependency and cause more harm than good. The influx of tourist dollars will be earned and the job base will expand substantially. This will supply prosperity and fuel self-determination. Infrastructure that supports tourism can benefit Haitians as well in the forms of roads, electricity, etc.
I discovered some of the problems associated with excessive charity first hand. I formed a charitable foundation in 2003, to try and make a difference. We did make a difference for over 300 individuals. But the greatest obstacle to expansion was not a lack of hard work or sincerity on behalf of our partners but a lack of entrepreneurial skills. I wanted to something that would create jobs in the private sector. I created Tours to Haiti in order to contribute to that objective.
C) Where are the opportunities? What are the challenges?
The greatest opportunity is that each person, each tourist, bringing money into the system in an honest exchange for vacation, adventure, exchange of ideas and some enlightenment, while washing it down with great food and drink will help the Haitian economy grow, reduce poverty and increase understanding among people. Anyone who travels here like that will make a huge difference for Haiti and the rest of our world by providing a demand for services and increasing cash flow.
Anyone who comes and invests in creating a tourism-based company, like dive shops, jet-ski and para-sail adventures, mountain biking and especially ecotourism, will be creating livelihoods, building the economy, and making a profit. The biggest challenge is our collective idea of security. As a report on crime in the Caribbean stated, “Whether or not such concerns are supported by data, it is the perception that matters most to the uninformed traveler, including potential travelers to the Caribbean.” (World Travel and Tourism Council, 2004).
It further states, “...tourism is by far the largest foreign-exchange-generating sector in Jamaica, with its gross foreign exchange receipts almost equaling the earnings from all merchandise exports. According to one review of Jamaica's economy, “…although the number of tourists affected by crime is low (in Jamaica, as elsewhere, the least privileged bear the heaviest burden from crime), fear of crime undoubtedly affects the Jamaican tourism industry.”
Regarding Haiti, American, Canadian and European perceptions have been magnified a thousand-fold by our media. At the height of the recent Haitian kidnapping spree, in 2006, the number of kidnappings in Haiti was 147. For Jamaica, in the same period, the number was upwards of 425. Given these numbers, which place is safer for you to vacation? But which country do you think most people are likely to visit? So far, it's Jamaica, Man! According to Ms. Vallera Gibson, of the Economic Branch of the US Embassy in Haiti, crime is way down and there has only been one kidnapping in the past year. This is the Haiti I came to know and love. This, I assert, is the usual condition in Haiti.
D) Can you tell us about your organization? What is its role in promoting tourism in Haiti?
Tours to Haiti is a for-profit company whose purpose is to: 1) change the perception of Haiti by bringing people to her shores to bask in the beauty of her natural and historic treasures, as well as her incredibly warm people; 2) bring prosperity to the people of Haiti at a local level; 3) instill in the world the idea that our perception of each other can either build or destroy relationships; 4) empower Haitians to resume their self-determination and choose the future that best serves them; and 5) make a profit for shareholders.
E) What are the goals of your organization and what services does it offer?
On a parochial level, our goals include bringing as many open-minded travelers to Haiti as possible and as soon as possible. Therefore, we offer guided tours of the entire island, led by Haitian tour guides, staying in good Haitian hotels, eating local food and enjoying local drinks (without a doubt, Haitians have some of the best rum in the world), enjoying local nightlife and meeting the Haitian people. Right now, two of the mayors of the cities we plan to visit on our inaugural tour from December 27 to 31, 2009 have agreed to escort our guests on an official guided tour of their respective communities. Both the mayors of Cap Haitien, the second largest city in Haiti, and the town of Milot, where lies The Citadel, what some call "the eighth wonder of the world", a huge fortress built high among the mountains 3,500 feet above the plane below with a view that stretches out to the Atlantic Ocean, where Christopher Columbus wrecked the Santa Maria and built his first town, La Navidad.
We offer tours for people interested in beaches and marine life, those who want to see historic sights, those who are interested in the adventure of mountain biking, spelunking, diving, and snorkeling. In addition to historical tours, there are also opportunities to see architectural wonders. We can also organize tours for missionaries and humanitarians. There are opportunities to visit non-governmental organizations such as SOIL and Hope for Haiti that are making a difference on a daily basis. We hope that by promoting eco-tourism we will also create incentives for protecting the environment. We will have eco-tours for bird watching and shell collecting, and hiking and horseback riding tours to the mountains, rivers and lakes. We are considering the possibility of fishing tours and would be interested in partnering with individuals and organizations to do so. If someone with a seaworthy modern vessel would like to work with us, please contact me at psmyth@tourstohaiti. I have seen some amazing marine life in Haiti and think there may be potential here.
F) Can you tell us about your website?
Most people will be delighted with the site. It contains many photos and an interactive map of Haiti that shows landmarks in each of Haiti's departments. For those whose computers don't read Adobe Flash, static pages will accommodate their virtual search. Haiti without its music is unthinkable - you can listen to a selection of Haitian songs will you peruse the website. We will include itineraries for three of the trips we offer right now, but potential clients are welcome to contact us and we can work together to create a custom itinerary - we will get them to where they want to go, guide them, and ensure a safe and pleasant experience.
Our tours will include the best travel insurance available and this is included in the price of the tour. We will also provide the usual recommendations for medical, hygienic and physical safety and wellbeing. There is a page for booking reservations directly. There you can find our contact information, but of course, potential clients are welcome to contact me directly at 443-324-1366. We are reachable at all times.
Potential clients should know that all arrangements for their safety and security will be arranged, including notification of the U.S. Embassy. In addition, we will provide a secure communication system so customers can reach their friends and families anytime they want, if only just to check in and tell them how much they are enjoying Haiti.
G) What would you like people who have never been to Haiti to know about the country?
I want them to know there is stunning beauty, even in the simplest of daily routines, like the women walking to and from the markets or the children playing soccer in the streets. There are great tales and scenes of colonial history, many of which are rarely visited by foreigners. All of this adds up to an amazing adventure which will never be forgotten.
H) Do other countries in the Caribbean offer lessons or models we can draw from as tourism in Haiti increases?
I think that all the other countries in the Caribbean give some historical suggestions as to how best to develop Haiti. I think as I outlined above, that those places that create a separation of the tourists and the indigenous population are the least desirable. Those places are likely not to support local markets and food production because they import almost everything and try to make you think you are someplace other than where you are. You come to experience the place you are visiting. Haiti is Haiti, and being able to experience it and be influenced by her is pure magic. It is important that all customers know that the hotels and the tour guides are not the only hosts. All other Haitians, or people of any other place one ever visits, should be treated with respect. We are the visitors in their lives and not vice versa.
I) Any other thoughts?
My former pastor and current friend, Britt Minshall, told me to come to Haiti. “It will change your life," he said. For the past eight years, the journey has taught me incredible lessons about myself and all other people. You, the reader, make a difference in this world with everything you do. Coming to Haiti will benefit both you and the people you will interact with. You will be contributing to the economy, broadening your horizons, and promoting a cultural exchange. If you treat Haitians with respect, and have a sense of humor, you will make many new friends. Show your support for Haiti with your money, time, and commitment. Come back and tell your friends and family what you have experienced. Make a difference and HAVE A GREAT TIME DOING IT!
Thank you for the opportunity to promote Haiti.
President, Tours to Haiti