"There will be more tourists only when Haiti is ready"

  • Posted by Marina Vatav
  • July 16, 2014 5:23 AM EDT

An Interview with Debbie Cabana, Communications and Media relations Advisor at Transat

Canadian Transat is one of the first international tourism companies to offer vacation packages to Haiti, after a 23-year break. Initially contacted by the Ministry of Tourism in 2012, the company now brings 30 tourists a month to experience one-week-long vacations of guided tours to Port-au-Prince, Côte des Arcadins, and most recently to Cap-Haitian.

Debbie Cabana talked about the opportunities Air Transat sees in Haiti, the feedback they received from travelers, as well as what needs to be done to enhance their Haiti packages.

How did you come about considering Haiti as part of your vacation destinations?

We were already offering a flight to Haiti once a week for about 15 years, so we already had a relationship with Haiti, but in January 2013 we answered an appeal from Stephanie Villedrouin, the Minister of Tourism of Haiti. She contacted us and said that Haiti has the potential to offer packages and to welcome some travelers from Canada, mostly from Quebec since we are flying from Montreal. She was really convincing in telling us that the country was ready, that the infrastructure was better, and that they are really working to welcome more tourists. The idea of course was to help Haiti's economy; and the government there really thinks that tourism can do that. Since we can see the difference in DR (The Dominican Republic), which are welcoming a lot of tourists, they were thinking that there is no way we can not do the same in Haiti. That's the reason why they approached us.

Transat in some ways is a pioneer in terms of bringing real tourists to Haiti now.

What opportunities do you see in Haiti and who is your target market?

What we see here at Transat is that a lot of our clients, and an increasing number of travelers, want to immerse themselves in a culture and experience the authenticity of a destination as part of a guided trip. Of course, people always like the sun and sand destinations, to relax at a beach, and stay at the hotel, but what we see is that there is an increasing number of travelers who want to go out of the resorts and meet the people to really experience a destination.

For us Haiti was the answer to these requests. That's the reason why we decided to partner with the government. The main objective of this offer is of course to help the country, and to give a new experience to our clients. This is why our all-inclusive-offer includes guided excursions; it’s meals, drinks and hotel, but also excursions. We are asking and we are welcoming people to go out of the resort and to go meet the people in Haiti, and give a bit of their money to the country by going to eat in restaurants, by going to see some shows, visit museums, etc. That's the way we built our offer in Haiti.

Are you targeting the more adventurous travelers?

Maybe “adventurous” is not the right word to use. It's people who really want to know more about a culture and a destination. The fact that we are offering some guided excursions is not that much of an adventure. This is a good package for the people who want to feel “safe”, because they are always with a professional guide from Haiti, a local person, so they are not by themselves. But, of course, it's made for curious people, for people who have travelled a lot and want to experience more than what they already did in other countries.

You mentioned that you encourage people to experience the destination. What are some of the things that you encourage people to do in Haiti so they can get a true feel of the place?

In Haiti what people love is the rich culture and the history. What I mean by going and experience the culture is to meet the people. Those who visited Haiti and are coming back are always talking about the people they've met. That's the reason why every day there is a guided excursion out of the resort, plus a meal out of the resort, which means you can experience the food from Haiti by going into a local restaurant. We visit the museums, the artists, and go directly in their houses where they do the art.

For the part of the trip that's on the Côte des Arcadins, there is an excursion near there that offers great hiking. We also visit some schools and the people in the village. So, it's really Quebecois meeting the Haitians in their homes, in their village, and it's not only inside the resort.

How do your customers receive these packages, and what are some of the things that they liked most?

We are really happy by how it's received by our customers, but it's still a small offer. We know there is a lot of work to do to reassure the clients and the travelers that it's a secure country. There are so many images that we see and so many articles talking about the dark side of Haiti, and what was left after the earthquake, etc. What we want to show to people is that there are still places that were not affected by the earthquake, that are ready to welcome tourists. And we are not turning our back on the history and what happened, we just want to show another side of the country. There is a lot of work to do to show people that it's secure, that it's well organized, and that tourists are really welcome in the country.

So, people who go and visit Haiti are coming back saying: "Oh my God, it's so much more than what I saw on TV, it's beaches, it's mountains, it's people that are happy, that welcome tourists." So it's not only the miserable side of Haiti that they can see, they can see that there is another side. And, as I said before, people are coming and are completely charmed by the Haitian culture and the people there.

What are some of the challenges that Transat faced while developing the vacation packages, or maybe while offering the tours in Haiti?

It's not so much a challenge as it is that we want to make sure we respect the development in Haiti. That means that our offer is kind of small at this time; we are offering 30 seats on our plane every month for packages. That means that there are no more than 30 tourists going to Haiti per month with our packages and not a plane full of tourists, so they don’t feel that the people there are not ready to welcome them. This is a way to really respect the development of the tourism industry in Haiti. That is the reason why we are working closely with the (Haiti) Ministry of Tourism, and why at first we only offered a few hotels in Port-au-Prince, a few hotels in Côte des Arcadins, and that we announced a few weeks ago that we are now offering Cap-Haitian as a destination. So, the offer is growing slowly, but we wanted to make sure that tourism was developed in a responsible way and that people there would be ready to welcome the tourists. There are of course expectations. When our clients are buying a trip with Transat, they expect certain quality of service at the destination, comfort in the hotels, they want to feel secure, they want the food to be good, so we really have to make sure that our clients would be satisfied with the products that we are offering and that locally they would be able to give the kind of service that our clients were expecting.

What is the average price for a tour in Haiti?

Packages start at $1,279 to $1,600, based on selected hotels.

Transat announced that it offers tour packages to Americans as well. Does it mean that they can now fly from the US?

Exactly. What we are offering from Haiti are the destination packages, but they do not include the flight from Air Transat. People can take the flight with the airline of their choice. There are several airlines that offer flights to Haiti from the United States. The destination packages are the same ones that are offered here in Montreal.

How many tourists traveled with Transat already to Haiti since January 2013?

We have about 350 travelers that bought our packages, which is good news because before we had one flight every weekend going to Haiti, but it was mostly people working for in-country organizations, or people coming back to visit family. When we are talking about those 350 travelers, it's really tourism. They are people that are going there only as tourists who want to discover the country, or those who haven't visited the country for some time. That's quite an interesting number and we are really happy about this.

Looking into the future, what can we expect from Transat regarding vacation packages in Haiti?

Of course we would like to enhance the offer in Haiti, but as I stated before, we want to respect the development that is being made there by the local authorities. We are working closely with the Ministry of Tourism of Haiti. They are informing us and are aware of the new development. We have people from Transat who work in Haiti and other countries, so they are traveling between the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Haiti to see the development, to see what we can offer, what are the new hotels, new excursions that we can offer to our clients, etc. We are following closely the development there, and, of course, as soon as they are ready to welcome more people and to offer new experiences, we will surely put the information in our brochures and make it available to our clients.

The Ministry of Tourism is promoting Ile-a-Vache quite heavily now. Do you have any plans for Ile-a-Vache?

At this time there are no plans. We are informed of new developments, and as soon as they are ready to welcome people we will have some of our employees looking at this opportunity.