The first in a three-part Latin Business Traveler series
Travel to Haiti can be difficult, with limited hotel options, security concerns and language issues piling on top of infrastructure deficiencies and a lack of transportation. A series of natural disasters - most notably a 7.0 magnitude earthquake in 2010 - had devastating affects on the small nation's already struggling infrastructure, and rebuilding has been slow going. Despite all of that, there are growing economic opportunities for enterprising businesses, and those opportunities are attracting travelers from around the world. A successful visit to Haiti requires preparation, advance planning and flexibility.
Understand Conditions on the Ground
One of the most difficult things a first-time visitor must prepare for is the potentially jarring scenes on the ground in the country. Expect to see open sewers, potholed roads, United Nations military forces in combat gear on patrol, and throngs of shabbily-dressed and unoccupied local residents.
Dig past those initial images, though, and you'll find plenty of reliable service providers and potential business partners. It's wise to make contact with potential service providers before heading to Haiti, and one resource for doing so is the directory of local businesses compiled by Building Markets. The Canada-based NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) worked in partnership with Haiti's Ministry of Commerce and Industry to develop "Find a Business in Haiti," located at haiti.buildingmarkets.org. This indispensable tool provides local contact information for close to 3,500 firms - everything from financial and legal services to security and transportation, logistics and courier services.
"Our team went door-to-door to register these service providers both before and after the earthquake," says Ainsley Butler, the organization's project director.
Language and Dress
Butler, who spent extensive time in Haiti between 2010 and 2012, shared some of her tips for a successful trip to the nation. First impressions count, she notes. Haitians in general, and those involved in business and the government in particular, "put a lot of emphasis on appearances and manners," she says. "Business meetings tend to be very formal, like in France, so wearing proper business attire (for men, a suit and tie and for women, a conservative dress) is strongly advised."
Language is also an important consideration. Almost all visitors should consider hiring a translator. For one, street signage - what little there is of it - is either in French or Creole. And, although many senior government officials speak English, their preference is strongly to conduct business in proper French - not the local Creole dialect or English. "But," Butler adds, "it helps significantly to also be able to speak Creole, so using an interpreter fluent in both languages, who is also able to communicate effectively with the client in English, is all but necessary."
Security and Transportation
The U.S. Department of State is extremely cautious in advising prospective visitors to Haiti. Its most recent warning, from August 13, notes that "Travelers to Haiti are encouraged to use organizations that have solid infrastructure, evacuation, and medical support options in place." The department's website also notes that, "There remains a persistent danger of violent crime, including armed robbery, homicide, rape, and kidnapping."
The U.S. Embassy in Haiti has imposed a curfew for all personnel, who must remain in their homes or in in U.S. government facilities between 1:00 am and 5:00 am. "Some areas are off-limits to Embassy staff after dark," the embassy's website notes, "including downtown Port-au-Prince."
The State Department also warns that there have been cases of travelers arriving at the airport in Port- au-Prince and being attacked and robbed after exiting the airport by car. It advises advance arrangements for transportation from the airport to your hotel, and notes the need to "use extra caution in arranging transportation from the airport."
Bearing these concerns in mind, the best way to get around the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, out to the nearby suburb of Pétion-Ville or around the country is generally with a driver. And most visiting the nation for business will want a security person as well. Such details should be arranged before traveling to Haiti, either through the "Find a Business in Haiti" website, or by working closely with your hotel.
Butler recommends hiring a driver who also doubles as a bodyguard. "That's the best of all situations," she explains. "It's a very difficult place in which to drive, and many drivers understand enough English to communicate while being able to provide a perfunctory level of security as well."
Money Changing and Other Details
ATM machines, as well as banks, are available to obtain cash. Money changers are frequently seen in tourist and business areas. Currently the Haitian Gourde is trading at around 43 to the U.S. Dollar. In some instances, U.S. currency can be used in lieu of the Gourde.
In terms of health issues, the standard caveats used for many countries apply. For eating, stick to hotel restaurants or others that are recommended by knowledgeable associates. (In part three of our series, we share several recommendations). Never eat fruit that has already been peeled or drink water other than purified or mineral water.
While it's unwise to travel to this nation without proper preparations, even the cautious U.S. State Department notes on its website that, "Hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens safely visit Haiti each year."
Parts two and three of this series will cover where to stay, Haitian cuisine and restaurant recommendations and cultural opportunities.