An Optimist In Haiti

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Reported by Adam Davidson

ADAM DAVIDSON: [voice-over] I've been reporting in Haiti for FRONTLINE and NPR's Planet Money since last year's earthquake. I'm a business reporter, and I keep hearing all these ideas about how this horribly broken economy could recover, could even grow.

One idea, which is far from the chaos of Port-au-Prince, seems so ridiculous, so unlikely, I decided I had to visit the northern town of Milot to try to figure it out.

Lionel Pressoir is the man with the idea. He thinks that he can turn this small, poor town into a major international tourism destination. He borrowed more than $100,000 to build what will one day become Milot's first tourist-friendly restaurant- even though, as he'll happily admit, he's never seen a traditional tourist here.

[on camera] So right now, you have no real tourism market.

LIONEL PRESSOIR, Entrepreneur: None. Not really.

[Twitter #frontline]

ADAM DAVIDSON: And you're building this big restaurant to accommodate hundreds of tourists every day.

LIONEL PRESSOIR: Are you trying to say I'm crazy? Yes. [laughs] But you know, I believe in being a pioneer. Milot is a town that we are trying to make into a cultural and historical mecca, and somebody's got to start somewhere.

ADAM DAVIDSON: [voice-over] Cultural mecca? This town definitely has its charms for a particularly adventurous traveler, but most tourists would not come anywhere near here. There's a hospital still combatting a cholera outbreak. There's just a stench in the street.

LIONEL PRESSOIR: This would look very, very poor to you.

ADAM DAVIDSON: But Lionel says, "Forget all that and follow me to Milot's great tourist attractions." Our first stop is a 200-year-old citadel, up there on the hill.

LIONEL PRESSOIR: And the water. It's just gorgeous.

ADAM DAVIDSON: The citadel was the result of another crazy dream. And this man, Henri Christophe, was the dreamer. He was born a slave in the 1700s, and he grew up to help overthrow the French colonialists in 1803. He later became the first king of Haiti.

LIONEL PRESSOIR: They want independence so much that they have the willpower to build something like this.

ADAM DAVIDSON: The king, like all Haitians then, was terrified the French would come back with a bigger army and enslave the country again. And he wanted to show the world that this newly free black nation was the equal of any other. So he had this majestic fortress built on the highest mountain around. Below, he built his grand home, the Palais Sans Souci, the Palace Without Worry.

[on camera] This must have been the guard tower?

[voice-over] It was largely destroyed in Haiti's last big earthquake, in 1842.

LIONEL PRESSOIR: Down here, it was just to receive dignitaries.

ADAM DAVIDSON: [on camera] Right now, I'm feeling you're a little less crazy. I mean, I- I can feel how attractive this is, how you can see lots and lots of tourists. I mean, I think anyone who cares about history, you know, this is a place you would want to come to.

LIONEL PRESSOIR: Oh, absolutely. There is no doubt about it. And there is not one place in the Caribbean that you can go and find this.

[ Watch on line]

ADAM DAVIDSON: [voice-over] When Lionel was a kid in the 1950s, Haiti was a hot tourism destination. He remembers seeing the fancy cruise ships filled with rich Americans land at the charming capital, Port-au-Prince. Since then, of course, Haiti has suffered decades of misrule, an economy that has basically collapsed. And to top it all off, the earthquake.

But if the tourists return, Lionel says, so would Haiti's economy.

LIONEL PRESSOIR: If we reach 170 people a day, I mean, this whole town will change. Economically, it's unbelievable.

ADAM DAVIDSON: So how in the world is Lionel going to find 170 tourists a day? Here's something that surprised me. Cruise ships do still come to Haiti. But they don't go to Port-au-Prince anymore. They only visit a private, secluded beach run by the cruise line Royal Caribbean. It's called Labadee.

ROYAL CARIBBEAN EMPLOYEE: There's lots of beach areas. The whole island is really beach.

ADAM DAVIDSON: While at sea, passengers go visit the excursions desk to figure out what they'll do when the ship docks.

ROYAL CARIBBEAN EMPLOYEE: Your para-sail is at 2:00 right now, guys, OK?

ADAM DAVIDSON: Tourists pay dozens, even hundreds of dollars to go snorkeling or on a zipline or a sightseeing trip.

Right now, Royal Caribbean doesn't offer tours outside of the protected enclave of Labadee. If they did, would anyone pay to see the Citadel and the Palace?

THOMAS HOOD, Passenger: My opinion is I want some activity stuff.

ADAM DAVIDSON: Most of the people I asked said, "Nah, probably not." They're on a vacation, not a history class.

THOMAS HOOD: Wave jet, I want para-sailing. I want all of that stuff.

ADAM DAVIDSON: Royal Caribbean built this private resort in 1986. It's only 10 miles from Milot and the Citadel, but it might as well be on an island thousands of miles away.

I have to admit, I laughed at first when I learned that one of the excursions - at 18 bucks a person - is a historic walking tour of a private beach built by the cruise line 25 years ago.

TOUR GUIDE: In 1803, November, we just kicked Napoleon's army out.

ADAM DAVIDSON: But the tour was actually really good and made me realize that when people learn about Haiti's incredible history, they do want to know more.

TOUR GUIDE: Napoleon lost so many people here, you know what he did? He was so broke, he sold Louisiana to Thomas Jefferson. You've heard of the Louisiana purchase?

ADAM DAVIDSON: Royal Caribbean got some bad press last year after the earthquake for running a private fantasyland for rich Americans so close but so cut off from so much misery. But Royal Caribbean argues, "We're helping the country." And I have to say I agree. Most Haitians I've talked to say this is a huge boon to Haiti. There's millions in investments, hundreds of jobs.

In a sense, Lionel's dream is just to extend the area that benefits from Labadee a few miles more, get these tourists into the country, get them to Milot.

[on camera] So now if I was selling you tickets to that citadel, you'd be a little more-

THOMAS HOOD: Absolutely.

ADAM DAVIDSON: [voice-over] And it seems like it could happen. Thomas and Anoinette went from no interest at all to excitement about the Citadel and Haiti in one short history tour.

THOMAS HOOD: Like I said, when he went as far as the Louisiana Purchase and different things like that, I mean, wow!

ADAM DAVIDSON: [on camera] Do you think you'd come back?

THOMAS HOOD: Absolutely.

ANTOINETTE HOOD: Oh, yeah. He's already planning the trip.

THOMAS HOOD: Absolutely. Absolutely. Absolutely.

LIONEL PRESSOIR: Behind this mountain that you see there is Labadee.

ADAM DAVIDSON: OK. On the other side.

LIONEL PRESSOIR: On the other side.

ADAM DAVIDSON: [voice-over] Now it's come down to this, these 10 miles between Labadee and Lionel's restaurant.

[on camera] I mean, I feel like, if I'm you, it's like they're right there. Just come. Just come.

LIONEL PRESSOIR: That's right. It is. It is. Ten thousand people behind that mountain.

ADAM DAVIDSON: [voice-over] How do you get those tourists to take that 10-mile journey? Royal Caribbean says they are ready, they're eager, they want to send them, just as soon as there is a usable road between Labadee and the Citadel. Lionel's entire dream comes down to this: He needs a road.

LIONEL PRESSOIR: And that's the priority for us. You know, we need to build the road. We need to make rules and regulations and make sure that the tourist is comfortable, the tourist is safe.

ADAM DAVIDSON: It might seem like a simple project, but building the road would mean a real transformation of how business is done here in the capital, Port-au-Prince. There had been plans to build this very road for years, but they were always shelved to deal with other priorities.

Then came the earthquake.

BILL CLINTON, Former President of the United States: An enormous amount can be done that will change the lives of the people of Haiti.

ADAM DAVIDSON: In the aftermath, a lot of important people said things would be different this time.

BILL CLINTON: -a unique collaborative effort-

ADAM DAVIDSON: The international community pledged $10 billion to not only rebuild Haiti but to create long-term economic development. The government crafted a plan, with tourism as a key economic pillar.

Finally, it seemed like the money was there, and the political will. A mini-gold rush had brought developers and housing advocates from all over the world to get a piece of the rebuilding action.

1st DEVELOPER: So we support homeowner-driven programs-

ADAM DAVIDSON: So many kept telling me that Lionel is right- building that road, bringing those tourists, is one of the quickest, cheapest ways to create jobs and economic growth.

2nd DEVELOPER: -sustainability in the long term-

ADAM DAVIDSON: And it would cost around 20 million bucks. That's one third of 1 percent of the money pledged to Haiti.

But with the earthquake came an even longer list of priorities. There's still debris everywhere in the capital, and the budget to fully clean the whole city is hundreds of millions of dollars. Now, cleaning up the damage is, of course essential, but it only gets things back to where it was. It can't help the country's economy grow like tourism might.

GABRIEL VERRET, Interim Haiti Recovery Comm.: Tourism is going to continue to be a huge- is going to continue to increase by leaps and bounds in the world as a part of the world economy.

ADAM DAVIDSON: But he says the commission which coordinates much of Haiti's rebuilding isn't working on the road.

GABRIEL VERRET: Debris removal is the most important priority.

ADAM DAVIDSON: The commission has two problems- one, a huge list of urgent priorities, and two, they've received little of the money that other governments have promised to give them. The debris removal budget remains horribly underfunded.

GABRIEL VERRET: We're not ruling it out. But right now, is it more important to me in the short term than debris removal or housing?

ADAM DAVIDSON: Everyone in Haiti has this problem- huge priorities, no money.

DANIEL FOUCHARD, General Dir., Ministry of Tourism: I told you that. Haiti does not have the money to build the road. You said at the beginning Haiti's the poorest country of the Caribbean. How can the poorest country which have people starving that you're talking about road construction?

ADAM DAVIDSON: I went to the U.S. embassy. The U.S. has pledged more than a billion dollars to rebuild Haiti, more than the Haitian government's entire annual budget.

CARLEENE DEI, Director, USAID Haiti Mission: -health, shelter-

ADAM DAVIDSON: But understandably, they, too, have other priorities.

CARLEENE DEI: The earthquake pulled us- we had to focus exclusively on meeting immediate needs. And a lot of the work that we're doing post-earthquake grew out of that.

ADAM DAVIDSON: Before the earthquake, USAID allocated half a million dollars to repair an old dirt road from Labadee to the Citadel. But that project, which is going on now, won't make the road passable for Royal Caribbean tour buses.

Another plan, by the InterAmerican Development Bank, pledges a decent amount, but it's only half of what engineers say is needed for a tourist-friendly road.

It seemed to me like a missed opportunity. I don't expect tourists from Labadee to eat at Lionel's restaurant anytime soon.

The Citadel was built to embody the pride in this new nation, and it's still a perfect metaphor for the country- beautiful and broken, a source of hope and despair.

Like so much in Haiti, Lionel's dream seems simple, obvious, and impossible. It's all at once a small little thing and an absurdly great fantasy.

LIONEL PRESSOIR: But you just keep going. I have to keep going.

ADAM DAVIDSON: Lionel says the Citadel shows that Haitians can become the first nation of freed slaves, the first independent black nation in the world. Haitians can do the impossible.

LIONEL PRESSOIR: They left us something. We have to take advantage of what they left us so that we can start building. It takes a long time, but maybe I won't see it. My grandfather didn't see it. My great-grandfather didn't see it. But I'm hoping that my grandchildren will see it. A long time is fine, but out of the life of a country, a long time is nothing.

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