Reading over Steve Sailer’s column “Why Haiti Is So Hopeless,” I am struck by how little attention is paid to the relative absence of tourism as an explanation for Haiti’s dismal condition.
There is a tendency among mainstream commentators like Jared Diamond to search for the “root causes” of Haiti’s backwardness in slavery, geography, or elsewhere in the distant past.
In reality, the true causes have much more to do with recent developments in the nature of the Caribbean’s regional economy. Here are three graphs that explain everything from from Victor Bulmer-Thomas’ excellent book, The Economic History of the Caribbean Since the Napoleonic Wars:
In the early twentieth century, the Cayman Islands and Dutch Antilles specialized in the export of live turtles, sandals, and straw hats. Twenty years ago, Cuba was still a major exporter of sugar at the end of the Cold War.
Outside of Haiti, the rest of the Caribbean, much of Central America, Florida and other parts of the Gulf Coast have long since moved on to exploiting the region’s latest crop: the tourist industry which was made possible by the development of refrigeration, air conditioning, cheap air travel and the steady rise in average per capita income in Europe and North America after the Second World War.
In the first table, notice how “Services as Share of Total Exports” has risen from 9.3 percent to 41.5 percent in Hispanolia since 1960. That’s the economic impact of the 4.4 million foreigners who visited the Dominican Republic, not Haiti, in 2008. In 2010, services accounted for 67.5 percent of the Dominican Republic’s economy. Tourism peaked in Haiti in the 1970s and 1980s at 150,000 visitors.
There is one notable exception.
Since 1985, Royal Caribbean cruise ships have called at a self-styled “Private Island Paradise” known as “Labadee, Hispanolia,” which is neither an island or a port in the sovereign country of “Hispanolia,” but rather a private fenced off peninsula in Northern Haiti only 7 miles from the squalor in Cap-Haïtien.
Labadee has been described as a “secret paradise island.”[Could this paradise really be poor, desperate Haiti?, Christian Science Monitor, 1-25-2006]:
“It has mango and almond trees, soft white sand, turquoise waters, and a perfect breeze. It looks like a secret paradise island. It feels like a secret paradise island. But, actually, it’s Haiti, the poorest country in the hemisphere.
Every week, up to 7,000 camcorder-toting tourists, the vast majority of them Americans, come ashore here off a Royal Caribbean cruise ship for a day of sun, sailing, volleyball tournaments, and sliding on the “world’s largest” inflatable water slide.
“It’s the best kept secret in the world,” says Melody Hickey, from Columbus, Ohio. “Its amazing.” ….
Greta Urnisk from Pensacola, Fla., has been on 10 cruises to Labadee.
Walking around the now-familiar site in a yellow bathing suit and a yellow Royal Caribbean fanny pack, she admits she has never set a flip flop out of the gated area. “What in the world would I want to find out in the mountains?” she asks. ….”
Haitians, not geography or “the legacy of slavery,” are the only reason why the place that is known as Haiti isn’t booming with Labadees:
“In the short term, acting as a stopover from cruise ships was the most logical starting point, since it required no facilities on the ground aside from a few acres of fenced-in, secured sand. The many cruise ships sailing out of Florida could not visit Cuba due to the U.S. embargo, so Haiti was the nearest logical destination after stopping in the Bahamas. Only Haiti’s unstable political life had prevented it from cashing in on the booming cruise industry.” (Philippe Gerard, Haiti: The Tumultuous History – From Pearl of the Caribbean to Broken Nation, p.214)
In Saint-Domingue, Le Cap (modern Cap-Haïtien) was renowned as France’s wealthiest and most beautiful colonial city on account of its architecture. In 2014, a private security fence protects Royal Caribbean tourists in Labadee from taking in the view of the present inhabitants of the ‘Paris of the Antilles’
The ‘Detroit of the Antilles’ is now the preserve of UN aid workers.