Jacmel & its coast – a “Creole Riviera” in the making? Or even

  • Jacmel certainly has old world charm, the galleries and balconies, Hotel Florita, the venerable old Douane and something like 100 distinguished old 19th century buildings, not unlike Charleston, Savannah, or New Orleans’ fabled French Quarter. And recently, figures like ex-president Bill Clinton, designer Donna Karan, South Beach developer Michael Capponi, and outfits like Choice Hotels and Diaspora investors are supporting projects of different kinds. Moreover, Haiti’s Association Touristique d’Haiti, the Ministry of Tourism and some donors are providing planning assistance, with Venezuela recently announcing a $30 million grant to improve the town and its lackluster waterfront. Are we seeing perhaps the very beginnings of a New World Portofino or St. Tropez in the making?

    Instead, we are hearing serious sounds of alarm, deploring the continued deterioration of so many of the old buildings, and shabby state of the town’s historic core. In 2010, after the earthquake, the World Monuments Fund [“WMF” in New York City] sent a technical mission to assess the buildings in the historic core for which its architects created a considerable database of fresh intelligence about the city’s built heritage. But come January of this year, WMF has put Jacmel on its ‘Watch List’ of places in very serious jeopardy, and has declared September 23rd of this year ‘Watch Day’ to sound a clear alarm precisely to raise awareness of the continuing deterioration of the city’s built heritage. This grim news would seem to dash hopes of developing any Portofino on any scale. But there is cause for hope.


    A dual destination: Beach plus Culture

    Now, the city’s leaders, businesses, and Diaspora members with a fondness for the city, should take extra special note of this action, grim as it is. Jacmel’s goal after all is to emerge as an internationally appealing resort destination anchored by the town plus the resort zone to the east, forming a winning combo what one could call a “Creole Riviera”. Hotels and resorts will be developed along the scenic coast for miles to the east, and several new resort projects have already been announced. This “Riviera” zone with beachfront resorts being the mainstay of Caribbean tourism and a drive to craft an appealing resort zone along the coast at the foot of the Massif de la Selle, is very logical and possible. Consider beach destinations like Cuba’s Varadero, Yucatan’s Riviera Maya, Jamaica’s Negril, and Dominican’s Punta Cana, all now largely successful after decades of development and careful master planning in critical areas. Moreover, this coastal zone east of Jacmel can offer a very exciting variety of activities both in the turquoise waters, and also up the slopes of the Massif for those seeking mountain adventure, trails, waterfalls and panoramas, a great plus for tourism.


    But clearly the hard part of this winning “Creole Riviera” combo is not the beach zone, but the “Creole” part, in Jacmel’s urban fabric that reflects its distinctive history, giving unique character and enduring charm to this combo. This means cultivating a sense of place, which embodies authenticity and reveals meaning not just in the old buildings, but in the public spaces and waterfront areas, thereby giving them new life. Recall the magic of Old Havana, Puerto Vallarta, Cartagena de Indias, or of Old San Juan offering unforgettable tourist experiences, and inspiring novels, films, songs, decorative calendars and art work, as well as high end real estate. Jacmel’s success is to be found in the crafting of the dual destination to attract not only beach tourists, but cultural tourists as well, a goal that requires vision and leadership.


    To achieve this feat, visionary leadership is essential coming from the mayor’s office, from the local Association Touristique branch, from business leaders, and even Diaspora Haitian investors. Perhaps what’s needed is a newly formed Destination Management Organization [DMO] as a public-private partnership run by the key interests in concert with business groups, with ISPAN the heritage agency, FOKAL the educational one, to agree and implement an agreed vision, with strategies to achieve it. The DMO could push for a local zoning code for the town’s historic core, a building code and a permitting system, all tools typically used in managing historic districts in many countries.


    Institutions as stewards In New Orleans

    In New Orleans, Louisiana, the city created a special commission, the Vieux Carre Commission [http://www.nola.gov/en/RESIDENTS/Vieux-Carre-Commission/], specifically to govern its historic district known as the French Quarter, which is now world famous. They also set up the Preservation Resource Center, [http://www.prcno.org/] whose mission [from this webpage] is “To promote the preservation, restoration, and revitalization of New Orleans’ historic architecture and neighborhoods.” So it assists the property owners on a technical level, with rescuing and preserving all kinds of structures in jeopardy. These institutions are tools of regulation and control, working in numerous other cities, that Jacmel can introduce, to shape its own historic core, to improve the broader urban fabric, and thereby help make a “Creole Riviera” a reality, with buildings that are genuine from the ground up. With a coherent preservation plan and institutions to implement it, financing may become a little easier for the future businesses. Jacmel does not need to start from zero, but rather can arrange for the needed technical assistance to devise the needed regulations and relevant institutions.


    With the oversight of such institutions, investors from Jacmel and other places will see opportunity in the old town, and open cafes and restaurants, guest houses, souvenir and curio shops, book stores, spas, dive shops, car rental and travel agencies aimed at the tourist clientele, varying the tourist experience, and most importantly generating much needed service jobs for local youth.


    Eyes on Jacmel: Can it do it?

    Can Jacmel pull it off? It is my fervent hope that it can, and that enough investors will work with local parties to achieve at Jacmel something like a “Creole Riviera” of which all Haitians can be proud. There are signs this year of vision and political will coalescing at both the national and local levels to push for the needed stewardship and investment. The Jacmelians of today and tomorrow will be the very first to benefit via the improved economic outlook and quality of life. So the new “Riviera” could grow on the coast and forget the town, going it alone and competing as just another new Caribbean beach destination. But the combo destination of the “Creole Riviera” could make a still bigger splash in the Caribbean’s vast tourism marketplace, and attract a higher quality, higher spending cultural tourist in addition to the beach tourist. So the analogy with Portofino or St. Tropez now becomes not so farfetched at all…


    © 2012 Manuel L. Knight is an American tourism sector planner based in Washington DC consulting for development agencies and hotel and resort developers and their lenders. He has broad international experience including hotel related assignments in Haiti since 2011. His first mission to Haiti was in 1998.mk@KnightConsultLLC.com.