The harsh realities of life in Haiti are hard to ignore: immense poverty, insufficient amenities and a crumbling infrastructure, exacerbated by 2010's devastating earthquake, leading to alarming levels of famine, disease and crime. But there is also creation and reconstruction, initiatives brought forth by government officials and community leaders of the Haitian diaspora that suggest Haiti is open for business.
Justin Viard, Consul General of Haiti in Montreal, is at the forefront initiating an economic resurgence. His role is to accompany Canadian professionals who are interested in being active in the business development in Haiti through entities like the Government of Haiti's official Investment Facilitation Center. His ambition is a welcomed change from governments past, whose failures have sunk the country into decades of economic stagnation. His message to Canadian and foreign investors? Believe in Haiti and its full potential.
While Viard works to facilitate an influx of capital, Stéphanie Villedrouin leads travel and tourism efforts, an aspect first recognized as integral to economic recovery by G20 world leaders last. As Haiti's Tourism Minister, Villedrouin points to the country's pristine beaches, waterfalls, adventure sports, international restaurants and boutique hotels as incentive for young Canadians to experience Haiti's rich music, culture, heritage and natural beauty.
Like any major recovery or revolution, change starts with the youth. Viard and Villedrouin are prime examples of a shift in direction from Haiti's relatively new government and are committed to making young Haitians understand that their country has the potential to be an important destination in the Caribbean.
We talked to Viard and Villedrouin about their efforts, why there's reason for hope in Haiti, how Canadian young professionals can get involved in the effort, and the other, enlightening side of the country's consistently negative media portrayal.
Justin Viard, Consul General of Haiti in Montreal (top right, at the Je Love Haiti event in Montreal on January 9, 2013. Photo by Darwin Doleyres):
Before your appointment as General Consul, what did you want to achieve in terms of portraying Haiti in a different, more accurate way?
Before I was appointed Consul General, I was a lawyer, a university professor (in Business Law, International Business Law and in Banking). Later, I was a regional bank director. In each of these positions, I’ve always tried my outmost to help people achieve their dreams (via education and via financial guidance). The best way to shape Haiti is to give its people all the tools to succeed. “Impossible” doesn’t exist. You know what they say: “if you can dream it, you can be it” … as long as you’re ready to work for it.
What was the first major milestone of your term?
Very early in my term, I put together trade missions to Haiti, made of members of the Canadian business community, many of which were of Haitian origin. It was important for me to have their involvement and make them understand that “Haiti was open for business.” With members of the diaspora on board, it was easier to then reach out to Canadian business people.
What was it that bothered you about how Haiti is generally perceived?
The prejudice people have when it comes to Haiti, based on what they see in certain media outlets, like the constant images of devastation. Yes, there has been devastation in Haiti, but now, there is creation and reconstruction. Things are moving. I wish we would see more images of what works and what is beautiful in Haiti, like our touristic attractions, our art and our artisans, our brand new university campus in the North, our state-of-the-art new industrial park, our historical landmarks and so forth.
Since the devastating earthquake, how have young people contributed to rebuilding the country and reshaping its fate for the future?
It’s been nice to see the 2nd and 3rd generation members of the diaspora chip in the reconstruction. They bring their education and creativity to the reconstruction efforts. I’ve been impressed by many rebranding initiatives – from efforts in the Jeune Chambre de Commerce Haitienne de Montréal to the Je Love Haiti event that was held in Montreal in January, which will now be an annual rendez-vous.
What programs/opportunities are there for young professionals to take an active role in positively impacting Haiti?
The government has various incentives to facilitate new investors such as fiscal exonerations up to 15 years and entities such as CFI (Government of Haiti's official Investment Facilitation Center) to help accompany new investors in developing endeavours in Haiti. And, as Consul General, it’s my role to accompany Canadian professionals who are interested in being active in the business development in Haiti.
What is one goal you set for yourself in 2013?
Canalized important investments to Haiti and consequently create more jobs in Haiti as unemployment remains one of the county’s greatest challenges.
What message would you send to the younger generation of Haiti in terms of shaping a positive future? To paraphrase Henri Poincaré: “There is no conceivable way to demonstrate that anything is impossible.” If they have an idea or a dream for Haiti, nothing should stop them in making it a reality.
What role can Canada and foreign investors play in ensuring a prosperous future for Haiti, both socially and economically?
Believe in Haiti and in its full potential.
Stéphanie Villedrouin, Tourism Minister of Haiti (top left and above, at the Je Love Haiti event in Montreal on January 9, 2013. Photo by Darwin Doleyres):
What was the inspiration for your career choice?
To work for my country has been always my guide. As you know, Haiti was a successful destination in the Caribbean in the 80s, so I know we could return to the word touristic market and it was my inspiration to study Tourism and Hospitality.
How has the role of Haiti’s Tourism Minister changed since the devastating earthquake in 2010?
The role of Tourism Minister of Haiti has not changed because of the earthquake, it has changed because this government has a very strong bet in tourism as an economic engine, as one of the best ways that Haiti and Haitians can get a future through employment and investments.
How important is the tourism industry to a country whose economy is in such a consistent struggle?
It’s one of the most important. In 2012, G20 world leaders have recognized the importance of travel and tourism as a driver of jobs, growth and economic recovery for the first time. And the World Travel Organization International (WTO) affirms that “tourism is one of the principal economic activities of Small Island Developing States." A new UNWTO report launched on the occasion of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (RIO+20) confirms tourism as an essential source of job opportunities, livelihood, foreign exchange and inclusive growth for these countries.
Haiti has the potential to attract visitors and this industry could be one of the most important sources of employment and richness to young Haitian people.
How are young people playing a role in changing the overall perception of Haiti as a travel destination?
For us, young people are the key to build a new Haiti. For this reason, one of the pillars of our political action is to improve education and training in tourism and hospitality: we have reopened the School of Hospitality of Haiti, where we are implementing a new curriculum, thanks to the collaboration of the ITHQ (Institut du Tourisme et Hôtellerie du Quebec). As a new achievement for 2013, we will open another school in the South and start to build a new school in Port-au-Prince. Young people could find employment in the tourism sector and have a future.
In addition to that, the youth is the work force we need; we have to make them understand that our country has the potential to be an important destination in the Caribbean region and that we need their involvement to achieve this goal.
What would you tell young professionals who have never considered Haiti as a vacation destination?
I advise them to come and discover this amazing and authentic country. They are going to be surprised because Haiti is not what the media usually shows; instead, they are going to live a unique experience in this less-known country of the Caribbean. We have pristine beaches, waterfalls, adventure sports, international restaurants and boutique hotels, as well as a rich music, culture and heritage. So, why don’t visit us and experience it?
What are some of the specific travel packages that visitors to Haiti can look forward to in 2013?
From Canada, due to our agreement with Transat, Canadians and Haitians of tdiaspora can find an offer to visit Haiti every month. The current travel package includes two days in Port-au-Prince and Côtes des Arcadins, a region of beautiful beaches and mountains less than an hour from the capital.
What have been some of the biggest challenges for you as Haiti’s Tourism Minister? What obstacles do you see in the near future?
The biggest challenge is to change the perception of Haiti in the world. We have a long way to go to change the perception, but Haiti has so much beauty and adventure to offer and we need to overcome this negative image about our beloved country.
Our strategy is to attract the Haitian living abroad to Haïti, so they could become our best ambassadors to invite the world to visit the soul of the Caribbean.
I don’t like to talk about obstacles, but solutions. As I said, we have a lot of work to do, but we have the energy and the political will to do our best and reach the majority of objectives that the President Michel J. Martelly has set for our country.
What has been your biggest milestone since starting your term as Tourism Minister?
I can't name only one because each goal achieved is a little victory. For example, I could mention the reopening of the Hotel School of Haiti, the travel package we have agreed with Transat, our new logo and slogan (Haiti, experience it!), our first official tourism guide, the opening of new terminal of the airport (a government achievement), and the visit of the General Secretary of World Tourism Organization to Haiti after 14 years without a visit from the maximum authority of world tourism.
What role can Canada play in ensuring Haiti sees a more prosperous future, both socially and economically?
Canada is a key country to change the image of Haiti. From the 80s until the 90s, we had a lot of Canadian tourists coming to visit Haiti. There’s also a very important Haitian community living there and we are joined through the language, too. Canadian media and government could contribute to building Haiti’s future by launching positive messages about our country and spreading the other face of Haiti.
Second photo courtesy Alexandre De Bellefeuille