“Haiti is not Port-au-Prince,” she said referring to the nation’s capital that was hard hit by the 2010 earthquake.
Still, Port-au-Prince is where the focus on new hotel rooms has been in recent years as the Occidental’s Royal Oasis and Best Western hotels, within walking distance of each other in Petionville, prepare to open next month; and the family-owned Karibe and Kinam hotels recently announced expansions.
Haiti’s image has suffered for decades. In 1982, the Center for Disease Control listed Haitians as a high-risk group for HIV/AIDS. Two years later, they removed Haitians from the list, but lasting damage had been done. Throughout the 1990’s political unrest and coups dominated headlines internationally. And in recent years, hurricanes and the 2010 earthquake has left cities in ruins and hundreds of thousands homeless.
The push to reshape how people think about Haiti is not unprecedented. Some Caribbean countries like Jamaica have also battled damaging perceptions, but nevertheless emerged as tourism strongholds largely because of effective marketing.
The “Come Back to Jamaica” campaign of the 1980s spurred Jamaica’s weakening tourism economy.
Many travelers may point out that they’ve already been to Haiti: Royal Caribbean ferries thousands of tourists a year to beachfront Labadie — which the cruise line calls Labadee and leases from the Haitian government.
While Royal Caribbean has been credited for bolstering the Haitian economy with a $10 “head tax” per passenger, tourists who visit don’t see much of Haiti beyond the fenced-in beach attraction.
“As far as any traveler knows Labadee is not Haiti,” said Turkel, the marketing guru,” If you travel to Labadee you’re getting a generic Caribbean experience.”
Haitian officials and Royal Caribbean have discussed creating packages to take the Royal Caribbean passenger into other parts of Haiti in recent years, but no plans have been announced. Spokespeople for Royal Caribbean did not return calls or emails for comment.
Tourism officials also hope to attract Haitian transplants and their American-born children who may never have visited their parents’ homeland.
“This campaign also aims to attract the second generation of the diaspora, the young professionals that know about Haiti only by their parents or grandparents,” wrote Stephanie Villedrouin, Haiti’s minister of tourism, in an email.
The country’s new logo unveiled, earlier this year, features a red hibiscus and a yellow sun. The flower may have little significance to non-Haitians, but to Haitians it’s recognizable as the national flower of their homeland.
“When you have limited funds like Haiti, you look at the audience with the highest propensity to go there,” Turkel said, adding, “It’s no different than targeting American Jews to go to Israel.”
However, some say the pitch to a diaspora that already shoulders heavy economic responsibilities is not without some challenges.
While many Haitians in the diaspora visit family — and frequently send money home to pay for things like school and medical care — few consider spending disposable income on hotels or car rentals.
Madsen Marcellus, an attorney who lives in Pembroke Pines visits Haiti at least once a year to see his family. When he visits, he said he it is not for leisure.