Haiti

Haiti’s economic lifeline has taken a hit. Expedia just made it worse.

Haiti’s tourism sector is up in arms over recent travel warnings from the U.S., Canada and France that have led to at least one booking company — Expedia — blacklisting the country’s two international airports and hotels as illegal.

People seeking to book flights and hotel rooms on Expedia and subsidiaries Travelocity, Orbitz, Hotwire and CheapTickets are being blocked from doing so following violent protests that erupted on Feb. 7. Though Haitians were shuttered in for more than a week, with schools and businesses closed, international carriers like American, Spirit and JetBlue kept flying.

But Expedia didn’t seem to care.

“This airport is not a legal airport to book,” read the Expedia.com flight booking page for Port-au-Prince, Haiti and Cap-Haïtien airports through the holiday weekend. On Tuesday the site switched the language to “We could not find any airports that match your search.”

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The switch came after Haitians took to social media demanding to know how can an airport be “illegal,” and after the country’s tourism association met on Tuesday over the language.

The block, said an Expedia spokesperson, is linked to the State Department Level Four travel warning.

“Once governmental advice reaches a certain level of travel concern, we take action to close off destinations on our sites,” said Philip Minardi, director of communications for the Expedia Group. The block will remain in effect until the advisory lifts, he said.

But hoteliers and others in Haiti’s tourism sector say this is the last thing the country needs.

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A hotel guest watches a soccer match surrounded by the staff at the lobby bar of the Karibe Hotel. On Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019, staff outnumbered guests as most of the hotel’s rooms were empty after a heavy drop in occupancy rates followed travel advisories issued by United States. Carl Juste cjuste@miamiherald.com

“We already have a dagger in our belly and Expedia just took that dagger and turned it,” said Jean Lionel Pressoir, a restauranteur who runs Tour Haiti, a travel and logistics service that receives visitors. “It’s going to take us so many years to recover from this.”

Pressoir said in recent days he’s received cancellations all the way to August. Meanwhile, his museum restaurant, located inside the Musée du Panthéon National (MUPANAH) in downtown Port-au-Prince, went from receiving 70 to 80 guests a day to just two take-out orders on Monday, its first full day of operations since protests began rocking the country.

“You cannot pay your cook at that level…You cannot imagine how much this is hurting,” he said.

At the Karibe Hotel, where tourists and foreign diplomats just a few weeks ago crowded the expansive grounds to attend the Port-au-Prince International Jazz Festival, the scene is bleak. Only four of the hotel’s 174 rooms were occupied earlier in the week. The hotel has since laid off half of its staff because of cancellations, said owner Richard Buteau.

“Putting Haiti next to Afghanistan, Syria, countries that are in war, I think it’s unfair,” Buteau said of the travel warnings. “It’s like putting an embargo on Haiti. Why [put] an embargo on Haiti?”

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An employee sweeps leaves near the pool at the Karibe Hotel, which has laid off half of its staff because of cancellations. Carl Juste cjuste@miamiherald.com

Buteau said in his 33 years working in Haiti’s tourism sector, business is the worst it’s ever been. Even workers outside of tourism are affected.

“It’s the agricultural products that were coming to the hotel that cannot come anymore,” he said. “It’s all the employees that have all of their families depending on their revenues at the end of the month and now we’re going to have to let some of them go.

“This is killing the economy. This is killing the people, it’s really unfair,” added Buteau. His family also operates the Kinam hotel and Servotel in metropolitan Port-au-Prince and the Satama Hotel in Cap-Haitien. “It’s really not justified and it has to be revised ASAP because Haiti hasn’t done any wrong to anybody to deserve that.”

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Since the devastating 2010 earthquake, Haitians have worked hard to put the country back on the tourism map. Several luxury hotels have opened, including the country’s first Marriott, and El Rancho, which is part of the Spanish hotel chain NH Hotels.

One of the biggest investments involved the Colombia-based Decameron Hotels & Resorts on the site of the former Club Med along the Haitian Riviera. Located an hour-and-a-half outside of the capital, the hotel has also seen guest cancellations.

But now, as the crisis subsides and normal operations resume in offices and on public transportation, hotel lobbies are virtually empty.

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The once-crowded lobby of the Karibe Hotel is now mostly empty even though normal operations have begun to resume in Haiti. Carl Juste cjuste@miamiherald.com

Some travel companies are still booking Haiti trips. CheapOAir is still offering bookings in Haiti. American Airlines continues to operate its three daily flights to Port-au-Prince and one daily flight to Cap-Haïtien from Miami, an airline spokesperson confirmed. The airline is allowing fee-free cancellations and changes through Sunday.

Airbnb, the short-term rental site, continues to take bookings and is also offering fee-free cancellations or changes through its extenuating circumstances policy.

But the travel warnings and website blackouts will be hard to overcome, said Pressoir, who had to let go seven employees on Monday.

“Last year, things were looking so good that we at Tour Haiti purchased seven new buses,” he said. “Now I don’t know what to do, that is the true reality. Decameron is closed. Moulin Sur Mer is closed. Hotels in Petionville are not getting people.

“It’s easy to lose but recuperating, rebuilding is so difficult, especially in tourism. I don’t know what to say. It’s like one of the worst hurricanes ever has fallen on us,” he said.

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Jacqueline Charles has reported on Haiti and the English-speaking Caribbean for the Miami Herald for over a decade. A Pulitzer Prize finalist for her coverage of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, she was awarded a 2018 Maria Moors Cabot Prize — the most prestigious award for coverage of the Americas.
Taylor Dolven covers the tourism industry at the Miami Herald, where she aims to tell stories about the people who work in tourism and the people who enjoy it. Previously, she worked at Vice News in Brooklyn, NY, where she won a Front Page Award from the Newswomen’s Club of NY for a national investigation of police shootings.
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