Young Haitian-Americans need to put their money where their mouths are and make Haiti their next vacation destination. We are often critical of Haiti and its government but are short on offering solutions. Visiting Haiti will infuse much needed money into the local economy and provide a better context for the current situation in Haiti.
The truth is, Haiti is a place we barely know. Most of what we know of our homeland comes from our parents (who probably left to escape horrible conditions) and the foreign media. As a result we often have a distorted and negative view of current conditions in Haiti.
For example, many of my friends consider Haiti as too dangerous to visit. In reality, it is one of the safest countries in the Western Hemisphere. A study conducted by the United Nations in 2011 concluded that Haiti has one of the lowest homicide rates in the region, 6.9 per 100,000 people. In comparison, popular vacation destination places such as the Dominican Republic and Jamaica are significantly higher at 24 and 52.1 respectively.
There is no substitute for experiencing a country firsthand and drawing our own conclusions. This is a lesson I learned when I visited Haiti a few weeks after the earthquake. The destruction was devastating but it was far from the post-apocalyptic society that was depicted in the media. As I walked through Port-au-Prince my emotions began to shift from sadness to hopeful.
When I returned to Boston, I tried to in vain to convince other people not to feel bad for the people in Haiti and find ways to support the reconstruction effort. I was often dismissed as a dreamer, an eternal optimist but my experience was consistent with others who had visited Haiti weeks after the earthquake. It is too bad that most of us still have those haunting images of dead bodies seared into our consciousness and not the glimpses of bravery and heroism that I experienced firsthand.
Another misconception is that Haiti’s a political powder keg that’s ready to explode at any time. The country has experienced its fair share of turmoil but it is experiencing its longest stretch of political stability since the 1980s. Moreover, political violence tends to be centered in the capital, not touristic destinations such as Jacmel, Port Salut and Ile a Vache.
It may seem overly simplistic but spending money in Haiti will have a ripple effect that might provide economic and political stability in the country. That is, as long as we make a concerted effort to spend money on locally produced goods and not on fancy hotels and resorts. It would increase the possibility of more street merchants and other small businesses owners becoming part of the country’s small middle class.
It is basic economics that the middle class is the engine of an economy because they are more likely to spend their surplus wealth on goods and services. In the long run, as they have acquired more and stand more to lose they are also more likely to organize politically and demand more from their government.
Taking a vacation may not be as sexy nor as concrete as starting a not-for-profit organization or building an orphanage but its impact may be greater as money is being pumped directly into the economy. Haiti has been dysfunctional for a long time and it will most likely remain that way unless the diaspora becomes directly involved. There are many other ways that we can help but we also stand to gain by visiting our homeland.
Reginald Toussaint is originally from Haiti and lives in Boston. His column appears regularly in the Reporter.