Five years after Haiti was devastated by an earthquake, tourists are returning – to find a raw and fascinating Caribbean country with a unique culture
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.