Can Ecotourism Save Haiti?

Spider Lily – Haiti, originally uploaded by alan2onion.

As the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, Haiti’s troubles have escalated due to political instability, poor living conditions, natural disaster and perhaps a bit of donor fatigue. However, recently the country has made it back into the international spotlight with global donors agreeing this week to pledge $324 million in aid to the impoverished Caribbean nation.

There is no doubt that such aid is desperately needed, but the question still remains: What can Haiti to do save itself?

The obvious thing would be to look at Haiti’s past. Before political turmoil hit the country, it was a popular tourist destination and a common stop for many Caribbean cruise lines. The remains of gorgeous beach resorts still exist in the country today, but few are open for business. Will they ever reopen their doors? Can tourism make a come-back in Haiti and serve as a self-sustainable means of development?

Yes, voices familiar with Haiti’s situation say, especially when it comes to the potential ecotourism brings as the nature and wildlife in Haiti could attract many visitors hoping to observe and help save the country’s threatened ecosystems. But much needs to be done in preparation before such a venture becomes a reality.

First, the country needs to experience some sense of political stability. (Yes, I know this is obvious but it’s so vital, its importance can’t be repeated enough.) Fears of violence continue to keep visitors from coming to Haiti and a sense of security is necessary if tourism is ever going to take off. This is a challenge the country still needs to overcome because according to a March 3, 2009 briefing by the International Crisis Group, Haiti’s stability is still at risk.

An equally obvious task is for Haiti to address some serious environmental concerns which have developed over the years such as deforestation, soil erosion and damage done by severe storms and hurricanes of the past.

According to an AID report, Haiti “is suffering from a degree of environmental degradation almost without equal in the entire world.” The virgin forests that once covered the entire country have now been reduced to 4% of the total land area. According to United Nations sources, Haiti loses 3% of its forests every year. Deforestation has had a disastrous effect on soil fertility, because the steep hillsides on which so many Haitian farmers work are particularly susceptible to erosion. The nation loses 1.35 tons of soil per square kilometer yearly.

The damage has gone beyond just the physical land:

As of 2001, four species of mammals, eleven bird species, and six types of reptiles were endangered. Endangered species in Haiti include the tundra peregrine falcon, Haitian solenodon, green sea turtle, hawksbill turtle, and American crocodile. At least 13 species have become extinct, including the Caribbean monk seal, imposter hutia, and the Haitian edible rat.

But with these two pre-requisites attended to, as well as the contruction of proper infrastructure, ecotourism could be the key to Haiti’s future sustainability, according to the UN Development Program in Haiti:

Given the extensive environmental degradation in Haiti, one might wonder whether enough eco-attractions still exist. Amazingly, Haiti still possesses a wealth of biodiversity. It is home to more than 6,000 species of plants (35 per cent of them endemic), 600 species of orchids and 220 species of birds (21 of them endemic). The birds include a beautiful Trogon and the smallest bird in the world, the Vervain hummingbird.

Haiti is a botanist’s and bird watcher’s paradise. The unusual diversity and high number of species result from Haiti’s varied mountainous topography and its insular bio-geography, including its proximity to both North and South America. Haiti remains a spectacularly beautiful country of towering mountains, relictual mountain cloud forests, fantastic coral reefs and shining beaches, charming and colorful art and music, and a unique and fascinating culture and history

Haiti still possesses unusual and marketable eco-attractions Hispaniola’s mountains, the highest in the Caribbean, are dotted with dense pine forests, waterfalls, lofty peaks, unexplored limestone cave Systems and meadows filled with wildflowers. Haiti’s exquisite beaches are often surrounded by peaks and pristine coral reef systems Haiti has pocket deserts filled with unusual cacti; in fact, some scientists claim that many species of cacti originated in Hispaniola. In the highest of Haiti’s mountains, two national parks, Macaya and Lavisite, have been established to conserve the country’s natural heritage and unique mountain ecosystems.

Although the UN report is dated 1996, it offers a hopeful option for Haiti. Also, recent news suggests that ecotourism still remains a realistic possibility for the nation. [See this July 2008 article about a Kansas Biological Survey volunteer who is helping develop Haiti’s ecotourism industry.]

Also, the UN recognizes the challenges that stand in the way of this becoming a reality, but the report does not completely dismiss hope. In addition to political and social stability, such a program would need strong government support and interest from Haiti’s elite who instead of spending lots of money to travel abroad, could set an example by investing money in domestic tourism, the UN suggests. This is an important reminder that development is not a one-sided deal: not only do the intended beneficiaries need to get behind the efforts being undertaken, they also need to be involved in them as well.

Having said that, it would be wonderful to see Haiti take advantage of its pristine natural habitat and learn how to market it to international tourists as a way to pull the country back onto its feet again. Ecotourism is becoming a big thing these days and not every country can make a living off it it. But I believe Haiti can, and it’d be nice to see this option promoted more openly as inspiration for those who have the desire to make this a reality.

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