Tourists take note: A Dominican-Haitian touring corridor is in the making!

The world of travel has long celebrated overland touring corridors like Florida’s route from Fort Lauderdale and Miami down through the keys to Key West, the routes in the American west linking national parks like Zion, Bryce and Grand Canyon, the Bangkok-Singapore journey by road or rail, or South !frica’s ocean side Garden route following its southern coastline. In the yachting world, the Caribbean has two popular sailing areas, one being the US and British Virgin Islands found east of Puerto Rico, and another being just north of South America and Trinidad, called the Grenadines, a scenic archipelago forming the nation of St. Vincent & The Grenadines. I believe that the north coast of the Dominican Republic [the “DR”] and of Haiti together can form such an east-west touring corridor, by road or sea, breaking the mold in the Caribbean, which is known for sedentary, one-stop holidays and not for ‘itinerant’ ones that keep the tourist on the road for a while. The idea is appealing since it can generate jobs and wealth in a number of rural and even remote areas of Haiti’s Northeast, North and Northwest departments by creating all sorts of tourism jobs and raising income levels for the hired locals. Let’s see how this could be achieved.

The north coast of the DR has for decades earned its place in the marketplace with the emergence of Puerto Plata, Cabarete, Sosua, the Samana peninsula and points in between, plus the well-known mega-destination of Punta Cana-Bavaro-Cap Cana to the east. As a result there are international flights into the airports at Puerto Plata, Santiago, Samana and especially into Punta Cana, which gets the heaviest traffic of them all. Years ago this region became a favorite wintering haven for many Europeans and Canadians staying weeks and even months on long-stay ‘residential’ holidays. So for years Dominican operators have been busing their customers via Ouanaminthe on adventuresome excursions highlighted by the spectacular fortress of the Citadelle.

All would agree that Haiti has a spectacular cultural attraction in the heritage park of the Citadelle Henri, plus Cap Haïtien’s Old Town, an urban gem, for cultural tourists. However, Haiti can offer so much more since it can easily develop natural attractions along its idyllic bays and coves, shoals and islands, at places like Fort Liberté, Chouchou Bay, and Tortuga Island, to name a few of them. The point is that Haiti’s north coast with all its natural beauty has a clear potential to draw a rising flow of tourists from all of these Dominican destinations but more importantly, must eventually grow its own tourist business without this “DR crutch”. Namely, Haiti must provide attractive travel products on its own that will draw tomorrow’s tourists, which will become easier with new air services by companies like JetBlue, Haitian Air and Sunrise Airways. Nevertheless, a problem-free touring corridor is an excellent strategy for the present but enduring success will depend on much more than improved air links and newly paved roads.

Functional, well-presented heritage sites are needed.

The good news is that Haiti’s heritage arm, ISPAN, is working with the Inter-American Bank and the World Bank, among others, to replan and better preserve the heritage sites to make for safer, more meaningful visits by tourists of all kinds, in preparation for dramatically rising visitor volumes. Many cultural tourists will endure substandard conditions [shabby hotels, faulty buses, etc.] uncomplaining if they feel enriched by their visits to the heritage sites. So the focus on upgrading these sites for cultural tourists of all ages and origins is well justified. While beautiful beaches abound in the Caribbean, as do Spanish forts of different sizes, the monumental Citadelle Henri is unique in the New World, and is Haiti’s top attraction drawing tourists staying deep in the Dominican side. As such it is vital that Haiti’s sites be soundly managed for preservation and educational purposes as well as for tourism, and that all the services offered in that heritage park be operated along fully sustainable principles. One challenge will be providing guides and docents speaking fluent English and Spanish as well as the less common languages of some visitor groups such as German or Russian.

Smooth logistics are needed to move tourists in and out.

Safe, clean and comfortable vans, buses and taxis are indispensable, all safely operated by trained and licensed drivers, and hosted by multilingual escorts and coordinators. At the critical Ouanaminthe border crossing, a broad range of regulations and procedures for the vehicles, for their drivers, and for the travelers, needs to be worked out between the two countries, including operating rights, insurance coverages and the like. This is a vital step of harmonization of various types of transport services, and it also applies to the rent-a-car industry to make problem-free border crossings the norm for travelers using rental cars. Certain conveniences at the border crossings also are needed, like ATMs and money changers, tourist information, taxi stands, clean toilets, and cellphone agencies [and strong signals too!], being among the key ones. Now that the highways on both the Dominican and Haitian sides are in good condition, safe and reliable 24-hour border operation at Ouanaminthe all year will increase this border’s convenience for travelers between the two countries. Tour operators will have more flexibility in designing tour circuits and will be able to make fuller use of the expanding air services at Cap, Santiago or Puerto Plata. While in many respects conditions at the border are not bad at all, there is room for improvement.

Good, affordable lodging is a must.

While the DR has plenty of lodging for all pocketbooks, the offer in Haiti’s north remains very limited and of seriously substandard quality. New capacity in the form of hotels, motels, and even hostels and guest houses, is needed across the region. Demand will grow for lodging not only in Cap but at highway junctions, and near the industrial parks at Caracol and Ouanaminthe and also near the new Limonade university campus. For vacationers and sports-minded visitors, there are plans afoot to build resorts on some of the bays west of Cap. Tour operators, whether Haitian or Dominican, will readily organize to market such capacity provided the quality is up to a standard that is competitive. Lodging quality and value for money are problems across Haiti, a problem which Diaspora members can easily recognize.

Haiti must provide exciting water-borne activities to add value.

Destinations like Puerto Plata, Samana and Punta Cana in the DR are successful in part for their offer of such activities which bring in families, sportsmen, explorers and action-oriented nature lovers. These include all the usual watersports for families and the sports-minded, but also experiences like turtle nesting grounds and nurseries, exploring reefs, underwater diving, exploring shipwrecks, deep sea fishing, and whale watching. Some tour operators will combine stays by the sea with inland touring in their packages, an ideal formula for Haiti and the DR. All of these activities are available in the DR and probably most can eventually be offered profitably in Haiti as well. As a rule, a Haitian resort or tour operator may enter into a partnership with an experienced foreign one to launch such services up to consistent international standards. Experienced operators will readily know how to handle requirements like safety, emergency procedures, insurance availability when establishing new dive operations, for example, up to an international standard like PADI.

Haiti’s north can introduce high-value activities on land too.

Yoga clinics and health and spiritual vacations, others with extreme activities on land like survival trekking or bungee jumping, similar ones in marine environments, ecotourism featuring bird-watching, photo safaris, caving and visiting prehistoric paintings; this gives an idea of the many new activities that operators in Haiti can eventually introduce to vary the region’s offer and add value. It will also be important for Haitian artists and craftsmen to have shops along tour circuits to offer spending opportunities and further enrich the visitor experience. The challenge is one of bold entrepreneurship to determine just what these specialist segments of visitors require, and then set up a company and craft a team of people to provide these experiences reliably and up to international standards. Many firms will find it opportune to forge partnerships with foreign operators that already know how to meet their needs. It will be very important to have a security framework so that tourists and the tour operators feel very safe at all times. Good signage is also a requirement to increase tourist confidence. 

The yachting world may take a liking to Haiti.

Situated right on the Florida-Puerto Rico east-west sailing corridor, some small docking facilities are now operating at Puerto Plata and Samana, and in the future places like Cap or Fort Liberté could also build docks to handle passing yacht traffic as well as for hosting locally based yachts and pleasure vessels for recreational operations of different kinds. The proximity of Turks & Caicos and even of Cuba just across the 50-mile wide Windward Passage, are advantages as well. But as Haiti adds facilities at points like Mole St Nicolas, Port de Paix, at Cap and at Fort Liberté, it can plan to cultivate pleasure yachting, staging competitions and even regattas co-sponsored with the DR to show the marketplace that it has finally ‘arrived with a splash’ to the world of yachting. To be realistic, this is a distinct possibility that the north could target within 5-10 years.

Synergies of a touring corridor boost image and competitiveness.

Haiti is slowly emerging into the marketplace, but minimal lodging capacity in its north remains a challenge [most of Haiti’s rooms being too far away in Port au Prince and Cote des Arcadins]. Therefore Haiti can lure small but growing numbers of visitors from the DR via overland extensions by buses or vans. The DR is a somewhat mature sun & sand destination, drawing mainly mass-market American and EU long-stay vacationers [‘snowbirds’\ so offering Haitian excursions as fun extensions can add excitement to a Dominican vacation experience, add variety to a tour operator’s offerings, and boost its overall competitiveness – it’s a win-win situation. It is these synergies that make for the mutually beneficial cross-border partnerships referred to above. The prospect of visiting Haiti, if only for 12 or 24 hours, is exciting to visitors of all kinds. So in addition to developing its own flow of cultural tourists, Haitian operators can aim for short-term success by tapping a share of the 4 million tourists landing next door. A recent development is Transat Canada’s decision to route customers into Cap Haïtien via air from Port au Prince rather than from the DR by road, suggesting conditions aren’t yet quite right.

What kind of investment is needed?

Visionary investment is needed, since perhaps 90-95% of the overland corridor visitors will be foreigners, maybe half from EU countries, so quality standards for each link in the product’s value chain will need to be up to international standards to be competitive. Investors in the north are well advised to look at the wave of new hotels in Port au Prince built since the 2010 earthquake to see a variety of hotel designs and strategies, with both good and bad results. A major share of that recent capacity will not be competitive once the competition heats up, because of their poor design or shabby upkeep. Most will agree that tourism is a people-to-people business, and although a welcoming smile may come naturally to many Haitians, providing services on a consistent basis to meet the needs of a demanding clientele is the challenge the north will face. Quality must be a priority from day one. In addition, it will take time to build up the east-west touring corridor with the DR outlined above. So in the short term, Haiti’s tourist businesses can already tap the Port au Prince market and especially the Diaspora market via road and air from Port au Prince, while preparing for Cap’s new international air terminal gateway and improved links to and from the DR destinations. Therefore conditions are improving to finally put Haiti’s north squarely on the cultural touring routes ‘uniting’ Hispaniola, which promises to finally brighten Haiti’s image in the marketplace.

Manuel L. Knight is an American tourism sector planner based in Washington DC consulting for development agencies and hotel developers and their lenders. He has broad international experience including assignments in Haiti since 1998. © Images by Manuel Knight.