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Lionel Pressoir: “Another Haiti is Possible!”

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Lionel Pressoir, the man we’ve dubbed “An Optimist in Haiti,” was once a wealthy furniture exporter with homes in New York City and Paris. After spending 40 days in prison following a loan dispute, he changed direction and focused on a new dream: making the small, poor town of Milot, Haiti into a travel destination for people from all over the world. His first step: building a restaurant for tourists near the town’s famed Citadelle Laferrière.

I talked with Pressoir about his dream, his life and the country he thinks has enormously bright future. Sure, some might call him crazy. But sometimes crazy is a way to get things done.

What was tourism like in Haiti when you were growing up?

Haiti and Cuba were the first countries in the Caribbean to recognize tourism as a powerful economical force.

“If all these sites were in another country, would there not be lines of visitors paying to visit them like there are lines at the Eiffel Tower?”

In Haiti, it all started with the 1949 International Exhibition, celebrating Port-au-Prince’s 200th anniversary. Many countries participated in that International Fair: France, Venezuela, Italy, the United States of America, Colombia, to name a few.

Port-au-Prince was then serviced by Pan American Airline’s hydroplanes, which disembarked its passengers on Columbus Pier near the exhibition site. Because the exhibition was international, the city attracted the rich and famous, people interested in our culture, our history, our music, our cuisine. Private homes were turned into hotels; voodoo shows were being performed at hotels and restaurants. The town was alive!

Soon after, Port-au Prince became a cruise ship destination. Panama Cruise Lines, Grace Lines and many more were coming on a regular basis. Taxies were lined up at the pier, waiting to take visitors on excursions to Kenscoff, Boutilier, to voodoo shows. Haitian paintings became known, and craft products were selling like ice cream on a hot Sunday afternoon.

As a small boy back in the 1950s, it was a pleasure to go to the waterfront which was called Cité de l’Exposition (Exhibit City) and watch the lines of taxies and all these happy foreign visitors.

How has it changed over the years?

Our tourism flourished up to the 1956 coup [in which François "Papa Doc" seized power] and elections that followed. Fighting between the followers of the different candidates brought political instability. With that came a drop in visitors. After President Duvalier seized power, tourists were not welcome.

We had to wait until the 1970s, after Papa Doc’s death and the arrival of his son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier to power to revive Haiti as a destination.

Planeloads of tourists, mainly Canadians and Europeans, returned to explore our history and culture. Cruise ships started coming to Cap-Haïtien, and hundreds of visitors were taking the excursions to the Citadelle Laferrière.

Unfortunately for us, the discovery of the AIDS virus in the 1980s and the unproved 4H classification [hemophiliacs, homosexuals, heroin users and Haitians] once again brought a very unfair halt to our tourism effort.

All throughout history, Haiti has suffered from unjust events. We had nothing to do with AIDS! Since that time, it has been a never-ending battle to revive our tourism.

Today, all this is behind us. I must say, we have a very good chance. Collaboration is in the air; foreign countries and investors are once more considering Haiti as a viable market. We are on the right track.

Why did you decide to open a restaurant in Milot?

My vision is to make the historic town of Milot a cultural and historical tourism destination.

The town of Milot is located in the National Historic Park, at the foot of the Citadelle Henri [also known as the Citadelle Laferrière] which was erected well over 200 years ago. The livelihood of the population of the town of Milot is linked to its importance as a tourism destination because of its historical significance as the capital city of the northern kingdom, where the Sans-Souci Palace, the Versailles of the Caribbean, was built by Henri Christophe, King of Haiti.

The town of Milot is also the gateway to the National History Park — Citadelle, Sans-Souci, Ramiers, which is an inhabited botanical park, named after the three most important of King Henry’s Monuments. These monuments are listed by UNESCO [the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organizaion] under their world heritage banner.

Based on all this, is it not a natural that Milot be transformed into a cultural and historical tourism destination? If all these sites were in another country, would there not be lines of visitors paying to visit them like there are lines at the Eiffel Tower?

The Citadelle MUST be to Haiti what the Eiffel Tower is to France! (I am not the optimist for no reason, you know…)

In order to do so, we need to develop the links of the tourism chain, a vertical integration approach to tourism development, which is a must. And a restaurant is one of the most important links in order to satisfy the needs of the tourists to start, and later on, hotels and other private infrastructure.

Were you already working on building a restaurant when the earthquake hit? Or did that event influence your interest in opening the restaurant and work toward increasing tourism in Haiti?

I always believed in tourism as a way to develop the country. I’ve had a hotel in Port-au-Prince since the 1970s. A restaurant is part of the links of the tourism chain. The earthquake simply confirmed that tourism must be done outside of the Port-au-Prince area.

The Royal Caribbean cruise line operates a private resort 10 miles away in Labadee and has suggested it’s willing to send tourists to Milot as soon as there’s a useable road between the two destinations. You told us in the film that there have been plans to build such a road for years but that the project kept getting shelved. Why do you think it’s so hard to build a road in Haiti?

It is not hard to build a road. It has to do with decisions.

A road gets built when there is a need, and that need is usually linked to economy. That is why local and central governments borrow money to build roads. They expect financial returns.

A road to Milot in view of visiting the Citadel would be a good investment. We need people with vision at the helm for sound financial decisions so that road building and development car occur.

What’s the state of your restaurant endeavor now?

We are close to completion; we expect to inaugurate it in December 2011. The restaurant will be in a position to receive the local visitors, the foreigners living in Haiti (NGOs) as we await the arrival of the excursionists from Labadee.

My business plan confirms that:

+ With the actual number of visitors in the town (local, foreign, NGOs, etc.), I will not be losing any money.

+ To make money, we must receive the foreign tourists.

+ To receive the foreign tourists, we must establish the links of the tourism chain which means: Prepare the population through tourism awareness, starts with the road construction from Labadee — the road to the Dominican Republic is already built — and the construction of infrastructure such as a restaurant to receive them.

The road to Labadee, in my opinion, will be ready in one to two years the way things are going. My local Milot partners and I will be ready and waiting for them if we don’t find a way to go get them ourselves so they can visit Milot and the Citadelle.

What are your hopes for Haiti’s future?

I am very optimistic in regards to the country’s future: People make countries, not the other way around, and decisions are taken today to correct past mistakes. I am very hopeful that my children and grandchildren — and all their neighbors — will enjoy a better Haiti.

Another Haiti is possible!

Do you think aid efforts to rebuild the country are working?

The word “aid” is not compatible with rebuilding — investment is. As long as we think of aid to reference to rebuild, we are fooling ourselves and we are keeping the country in a dependency position. With investments, we will be gearing towards self-sufficiency. That’s what Haiti needs.

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