Haiti’s once growing tourism sector just got hit with another setback. JetBlue, Air Canada, and Air Transat are limiting daily flights to the country, which on Wednesday announced that it’s canceling Carnival, scheduled to kick off this weekend.
JetBlue, which operates daily round-trip flights from Port-au-Prince to Boston, New York City, Orlando and Fort Lauderdale, will reduce service starting in April. Air Canada, which operates round-trip flights from Port-au-Prince to Montreal, is suspending service now through April 29. Air Transat is reducing its Montreal-Port-au-Prince flight service in March and April and discontinuing its vacation packages in Haiti through October 2019. Air Canada and Air Transat cited “ongoing civil unrest in Haiti” as the reason for the change; JetBlue was less specific, citing reports from Haiti.
Violent protests in Haiti that started in early February have largely subsided, but Canada, France and the U.S. State Department still have “Do Not Travel” warnings in place. The U.S. State Department has issued a Level four travel advisory, and ordered the evacuation of non-essential diplomats and their families from the country this month.
On Wednesday, the State Department announced that Under Secretary for Political Affairs David Hale will travel to Haiti on Friday to meet with President Jovenel Moïse, opposition groups and others in hopes of fostering a national dialogue to break the ongoing political gridlock that is fueling instability and unrest.
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Opposition parties and others have been protesting the high cost of living and demanding the departure of Moïse and the arrest of those involved in squandering billions of dollars of aid money from Venezuela’s PetroCaribe discount oil program.
The airlines’ decision to limit service to Haiti comes after the travel site Expedia and its subsidiaries Travelocity, Orbitz, Hotwire and CheapTickets blocked travelers from booking flights to the island. As a result of the warnings and the unrest, hoteliers have seen a significant drop in room occupancy with some hotels being almost empty and forced to lay off staff. A recent visit to the Marriott Hotel in downtown Port-au-Prince found just four diners in the restaurant during breakfast last week.
Other airlines, including Delta, Spirit and American Airlines, are offering waivers for customers who want to change their plans. Spirit Airlines flies into Cap-Haïtien and Port-au-Prince.
Haiti’s Tourism Minister Marie-Christine Stephenson did not respond to a request from the Miami Herald about what measures her ministry is taking to reverse the decisions, or get the travel warnings downgraded. Hoteliers say the travel-related decisions have been devastating.
Still, on Wednesday, Royal Decameron Indigo Beach Resort, which was empty last week, was celebrating the return of 70 guests, including locals, Americans and Haitians from the diaspora. The all-inclusive resort north to Montrouis on the Côte-des-Arcadins has continued to market its hotel stays despite the reduction in flights and recent protests.
“We are slowly getting clients back,” General Manager Fernando Garcia said. “Our call center doesn’t stop getting calls.”
But like many hotels, Decameron was banking on the biggest party of the year — Carnival — to bring in tourists. The government’s decision to cancel the National Carnival, scheduled to kick off in Gonaives this weekend, came after much debate on social media and Haitian radio.
Haitians had been asking whether the country with its 15 percent inflation rate and record $89.6 million budget deficit could afford to spend the $2.3 million officials had set aside to organize festivities. Some cities are still expected to put on their own Carnival, which has long been a draw for not just locals but visitors from the Haitian diaspora.
The cities of Port-au-Prince and Croix-des-Bouquets had already announced they were canceling their festivities, although the southeastern port city of Jacmel hosted theirs last weekend. Though considered to be a success by the town’s officials, Jacmel’s colorful Kanaval was a much-more scaled down event than in years past.
Observers say this is only the third time in recent memories that the Haitian government has canceled Carnival. The previous two occasions were in 1986 after the fall of the nearly 30-year Duvalier family dictatorship and in 2010, after the country’s massive earthquake, which left more than 300,000 dead and 1.5 million injured and an equal number homeless.