A couple of rumpled aid workers were sucking down Sunday morning beers at the Hotel Florita here when the minister of tourism rolled up to the curb, followed by the interior minister with body guards toting AR-15s and then the star of the show, New York fashion designer Donna Karan of DKNY.
The notables were in Jacmel, the funky art and carnival capital of Haiti, to plot the transformation of the earthquake-rattled port from a faded flower of the Caribbean to a resort destination for jet-setters.
“We’re trying to rebrand Haiti,” Tourism Minister Stephanie Balmir Villedrouin said in an interview, her toddler in her arms. “We’re trying to raise the bar a little bit, and so we’re bringing Donna here to help us with our vision.”
Said Karan, as she swept through the abandoned Hotel Jacmelienne — its seaside swimming pool green with algae, its overgrown gardens littered with broken glass, coconut husks and discarded condoms — “Oh, we can definitely work with this!”
As hard as it may be for young Haitians to believe, their country was once a tourist destination. Even during the bad old days of the Duvalier dictatorships and their creepy bogeymen, the Tontons Macoutes, the tourists came. Or at least a few: See Graham Greene’s 1966 novel “The Comedians,” set incidentally at a hotel and based on a real-life gingerbread mansion, the Hotel Oloffson in the capital; the hotel is still in operation but is now run by Richard Morse, front man for the voodoo rock band RAM and the new government’s special political envoy to the Americas.
Today, nobody visits Haiti for fun, except Haitians returning from the diaspora. The arrivals lounge at the Port-au-Prince airport is filled with Baptist missionaries, U.N. bureaucrats and American nurses — not a bona fide tourist in sight.
Yet across the Caribbean, revenue from tourism represents about 16 percent of gross domestic product, and many island nations, such as the Bahamas, Barbados and Antigua, generate at least a third of their GDP from visitors. For most of the Caribbean, tourists’ dollars, euros and pesos are the No. 1 source of foreign investment.
Haiti let its tourism infrastructure degrade over three decades of political instability, violent coups, a U.S. invasion, hurricanes, earthquakes and cholera. But the poorest country in the Western hemisphere has a lot to offer the adventuresome visitor, according to international planners and Haitian officials.
The Creole French cuisine here is some of the best in the Caribbean; its artisans are of world renown, its blend of African and Spanish music unique. All this, and voodoo, too.
The still-evolving plans for Haiti 2.0 envision Jacmel as a stand-alone destination, meaning tourists would not land in the chaotic, intimidating, impoverished capital, Port-au-Prince, but arrive directly here via air or boat.
With development aid from banks and donor nations, the government of former carnival singer and current president Michel Martelly is planning to extend the airport runway at Jacmel so it can accommodate small jets that would shuttle from Miami and Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Puerto Rico; and Guadaloupe.
The forlorn port is also scheduled for restoration to allow big cruise ships to dock.
In the late 1800s, Jacmel was an important Caribbean crossroads in Haiti — then called the “Pearl of the Antilles” — and its downtown still harbors the Creole architecture of wrought-iron balconies and shuttered warehouses for coffee, saffron and orange peel. The town reminds many visitors of the French Quarter in New Orleans, and it hosts one of the best carnivals in the Caribbean, as well as a music festival and a film festival, now struggling to gain traction again after the 2010 earthquake.
Donna Karan knows Jacmel well; she shot her fall catalog at the Hotel Florita. The New Yorker gamely jumped into the bed of a pickup truck for a tour of town.
It stopped at the Manoir Alexandre, once the most prominent building in the city and now a ruin that is slowly being restored by Leon Paul, a Haitian American orthopedic surgeon from New York.
“We want to restore the manoir to its former glory, but as you can see, that is a big job,” Paul said as he walked Karan through the property, with its peeling wallpaper, holes in the roof, missing stairs and tilting balcony.
He said Jacmel, his home town, will rise from the rubble, and he promised that someday soon, Haitians and visitors will be sitting in his restored mansion, listening to a band, drinking rum and celebrating.
As Karan crawled through the ruins, she saw not despair, but hope: “Wow. Look at this. These are my colors. The rust, yellow and blue. Take a picture. This is perfect!”