Monday, May 3, 2010

Haiti island unscathed by quake, but tourists stay away

by Clement Sabourin:


The Hotel Port-Morgan resort on Ile a Vache, in Les Cayes (south-western area of Haiti). AFP PHOTO



ILE A VACHE, Haiti (AFP) -- There are no blue-helmeted UN troops patrolling the streets of Ile a Vache, and schools on this picturesque island did not close after the massive earthquake that devastated much of the rest of the country.

Even as the rest of Haiti struggled to clear away debris and dispose of their dead, life after the quake has gone on as much as it did before for the 15,000 inhabitants of this unspoiled paradise.

The tiny island, off the southwest peninsula of Haiti a half-hour by boat from the town of Les Cayes, boasts among its many pleasures a vista of rolling hills and crystalline waters lapping its white-sand beaches.

But despite being spared the physical ravages of the quake, the island and its growing tourist industry also have been hit hard by the disaster.

"No tourists have come since the quake," said Didier Boulard, a Frenchman who says that not one stone fell out of place as a result of the temblor that leveled entire city blocks in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince.

Nevertheless the quake has brought financial disaster to Ile a Vache, he said.

"I've lost 47,000 dollars," said Boulard, who had high hopes for a 20-room hotel he opened nine years ago with a view over a small bay that served as a harbor for pirates during the 16th and 17th centuries.

With some 50 associates, Boulard invested 2.8 million dollars to open the first prime tourism establishment here -- today one of two hotels on this patch of land measuring only eight miles (13 kilometers) long and two miles (3.2 kilometers) wide -- and dared to celebrate last year when he "managed to turn a small profit".

The January 12 earthquake ended all that, killing as many as 300,000 people nationwide, leaving 1.3 million homeless and relegating Haiti to near the bottom of any vacation list.

At Haiti's big tourist destination of Jacmel, almost 500 people out of a population of 40,000 perished and a quarter of the tourist town's 700 hotel rooms were destroyed.

And though Ile a Vache emerged unscathed, even the thousands of UN and non-governmental organization expats sent in after the quake were banned, for security reasons, from taking breaks inside Haiti itself, so spent rest periods instead in the Dominican Republic right next door or on other islands like Guadeloupe or Martinique.

The fallout forced Boulard to trim his usual 40-member staff down to 25.

On a recent weekend, he had eight guests, including UN officials, humanitarian workers and journalists. Another recent visitor -- a rare bona fide "tourist" -- confessed that she came to Ile a Vache despite dire warnings from friends and relatives to stay away.

"Mine is the tourism of solidarity," said Canadian national Francine Leclerc.

"I've come here to spend my money in a country that needs it."

Over the years, however, travelers have been reluctant to flock to Haiti, with its periodic coups d'etat and natural disasters.

It is also the poorest country of the Americas -- generally not seen as a selling point for visitors who have dozens of tropical paradise destinations to choose from in the sun-drenched Caribbean.

Tourists were scared away two years ago by a succession of hurricanes that leveled a large swath of the island of Hispaniola, which Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic.

The tourism industry -- which could inject desperately needed revenue into Haiti's economy -- has also been hampered by a lack of infrastructure. For Ile a Vache, for example, the nearest air facility across the bay in Les Cayes is too small to welcome international flights.

Yet this island has a seductively languorous feel, making it unlike other Caribbean destinations. Its residents, descendents of African slaves and freed US blacks who immigrated in the 19th century after America's Civil War, still live to the rhythm of tropical sunsets, screeching cock fights and gurgling mynah birds.

This gives locals like Boulard hope that the unspoiled location might one day fulfill its destiny as tourist haven.

"The potential of tourism in Haiti is colossal." he said. "Neighboring countries welcome 10 million visitors each year," said the ever-hopeful Boulard.

May 3, 2010

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