The billboard on Interstate 95, with its azure sea and sugar-colored sand, could have been an ad for any of the myriad tropical destinations hoping to woo travelers abroad.
But the tagline might be surprising to some: Haiti, Live the Experience.
The billboard, which was erected in August by the Haitian government, is the latest salvo in what the country’s tourism officials and hospitality industry say is a battle to rebrand a country known more for political unrest and natural disasters than its historical landmarks and natural beauty.
The I-95 billboard has since been removed, but others will soon appear not only in Haitian enclaves, but places like Miami’s South Beach — a nod to the savvy and well-heeled travelers Haiti hopes to someday attract.
“We can’t keep seeing the negative; we have to start somewhere,” said Guy Francois, Haiti’s vice consul to Miami. “We just need to bring awareness to the country. We need to get the pride back.”
The focus on attracting travelers comes as Haiti’s Ministry of Tourism embarks on an ambitious worldwide pitch, traveling to tourism fairs in Latin America and Europe and whizzing a global tourism czar along on a helicopter tour.
But some industry experts, as well as some Haitians in the diaspora, say pitching Haiti as a generically tropical destination ignores more marketable traits unique to Haiti.
“If they sell beaches, sun and palm trees, they’re going to lose,” said Bruce Turkel, a Miami-based marketing expert who has worked as a brand consultant for Puerto Rico. “There are plenty of audiences that will go to Haiti happily, like adventure travelers and cultural tourists, whether they’re interested in music or art. That’s what Haiti needs to concentrate on.”
Haiti must compete with its next-door-neighbor, the Dominican Republic, which has perfected the all-inclusive resort package complete with beaches and day excursions. In 2011, Dominican Republic travel and tourism supported 170,000 jobs, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council.
By comparison, the tourism trade in Haiti provides about 10,000 jobs, according to Haiti’s Ministry of Tourism.
Some entrepreneurs are pinning their hopes on adventure travel, a potentially lucrative market that taps travelers who may be more forgiving of the country’s famously rough roads and dicey infrastructure.
Philip Kiracofe, founder of marketing agency Travelcology, said Haiti is the ideal location for adventure tourism with its endless mountains and remote rural routes.
Kiracofe launched Mountain Bike Ayiti Project, to promote sustainable adventure tourism. The group plans to host its first race in January from Port-au-Prince to Jacmel.
“Slowly, the word is spreading out: ‘Hey, it’s not as bad as you think,’ ” Kiracofe said. “Haiti is pristine in many ways.”
As Haiti builds on its infrastructure to better accommodate leisure tourists, experts say it is the Haitian community abroad that will be most patient in the nascent stage of the tourism movement. The country suffers from regular power outages, shoddy roads and unpredictable politics.
“Of course the political situation is always a mess, but the people need to see that the country is not only what they see on the news after a disaster,” said Nancy Roc, a Haitian journalist based in Canada, who recently released a French-language travel e-book highlighting Haiti’s must-see locales and culture.
“Haiti is not Port-au-Prince,” she said of the nation’s capital, which 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 have 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 expert. “If you travel to Labadee, you’re getting a generic Caribbean experience.”
Haitian officials and Royal Caribbean have discussed creating packages to take Royal Caribbean passengers 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.”
But 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, Fla., visits Haiti at least once a year to see his family. When he visits, he said he it is not for leisure.
“Haiti is not a vacation for me; it’s more like giving back,” he said, adding, “Instead of building tourism, I think first we need to build an infrastructure. We need to build schools.”
Marcellus said he vacations in Jamaica because “it’s vacation central. That’s what they do, and they do it well.”
Jean Souffrant, a community organizer based in Miami, recently visited Haiti on a service trip with other young Haitian-Americans. The group did not rent hotel rooms; they shared a living space with a host family.
Souffrant said members of the Haitian community feel reluctant to spend money on leisure activities when family members and friends in Haiti can barely support themselves and struggle day-to-day.
“We have to take the reality of Haiti into consideration when you want someone to spend $200 a night on a hotel,” he said.
And even though Haitian officials say they want to target non-Haitians, it may not be an easy sell.
Modern travelers are accustomed to convenience. A click of a mouse can create a one-week vacation plan that includes hotel, flights and excursions. But many of Haiti’s hotels and tour operators are not even online. The few that are often have websites that simply direct visitors to call a long-distance landline.
“Once we have the online structure, it will become more accessible,” said Francois, who said the ministry of tourism is in the early stage of developing an all-inclusive package for Haiti travelers.
“We are pushing Haitian businesses to get into social media and online,” he said.
Business entrepreneurs investing in Haiti are optimistic.
The government recently asphalted a new 7,500 feet runway in the city of Cap-Haitien, part of a $500 million tourism vision for the northern region of the country. In Jacmel, the government has committed $40 million to a multi-million dollar tourism development plan that includes a new, expanded airport runway and additional hotel rooms. There are also plans to do a tourism free-trade zone in the island of Ile-a-vache off the southern coast.
The new runway in Cap-Haitien offers a chance for Haiti to make parts of the country other than Port-au-Prince accessible.
American Airlines, one of the leading carriers providing flights to Haiti, said it may consider offering services to Cap-Haitien in the future. Past American Airlines officials have maintained that half of their traffic to Haiti ventured outside of the capital.
“We believe that the development of the aviation infrastructure is a positive development for the country and its continued tourism and economic development,” Martha Pantin, an American Airlines spokesperson, wrote in an email.
Business owners on the ground in Haiti are hopeful, but worry about how the country will be marketed in the coming years.
The Bike Ayiti Project is working with Tour Haiti, a Haiti tour company that specializes in adventure and cultural tourism.
“All of the Caribbean have beaches, but we have a history and a culture to sell,” said Lionel Pressoir, owner of Tour Haiti. “Haiti has to establish its vision to be successful.”