At first, the fleet of tiny, hand-painted fishing boats, with hundreds of Haitians slamming cooking pans, chanting and playing music, was mistaken for a welcome ceremony. On Jan. 19 Freedom of the Seas’ passengers were about to disembark onto a new $55-million pier and visit Labadee, a Caribbean wonderland of zip-lines, BBQ-buffets and palm-thatched cabanas, hyped as “the ultimate private destination for cruise vacationers.”
Long before I arrive in Haiti I get a sense of what the name itself conjures up. There are no direct flights from the UK, so I’ve flown in via the Dominican Republic, Haiti’s conjoined twin on the island of Hispaniola. The tourists on my flight cannot understand why anyone would risk Haiti: “I hope you survive!”; “Will you have armed guards?” and, perhaps the key question, “Why?” But tour operators like the one I’m travelling with, Wild Frontiers, feel that Haiti’s time has finally come, especially with Cuba looking more visitor-crowded and less adventurous than before. There is also a sense that responsible tourism to Haiti could put money where it is really needed.
Hispaniola is shaped like a large canine tooth extracted from the gob of Mexico and thrown into the centre of the Caribbean Sea. Haiti is the western third of it, and I’m arriving on a small plane from the east of the island, gazing out at the mountainous terrain and totting up reasons for Haiti’s unsavoury reputation. So far I’ve got deadly earthquakes, dire poverty, the brutal Tontons Macoutes, the tyrant Papa Doc Duvalier, plus, of course, the zombies – mustn’t forget the zombies. On the plus side, I scribble “fresh fruit”. Then, out of the aeroplane window, the verdure of the Dominican Republic is giving way abruptly to something eroded and bone-like. Over Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital, we enter a pall of dust, and the plane bounces and sways before landing. I cross out fresh fruit.
It was not always this way. Expectations of this land were high when Columbus touched down in 1492, noting the extreme fertility, the abundance of food and clean water, the gold, and the handsome, happy people. “With 50 men,” he noted ominously, “we could subjugate them all and make them