As Haiti continues to battle gang warfare, fuel shortages, kidnappings and other crises, it’s hard to push the Caribbean country as a tourist destination.
But a handful of Haitian Americans are attempting to accomplish just that.
According to New York Caribnews, the group is organizing a sumptuous pop-up picnic with South Florida party planners, with hundreds of finely attired guests arriving on a hidden site in one of the Caribbean nation’s most historic cities to share a lunch. Le Dîner en Blanc in Haiti, also known as “the dinner in white,” will be held at an unannounced site in the northern city of Cap-Hatien on Saturday with the theme “Reimagine Haiti.”
The event’s planners anticipate more than 900 attendees, including tourists and influencers who have not yet had the opportunity to travel to the historic city or the country due to worries about kidnappings and violent criminal groups.
“The international community — which I can understand why — tend to see Haiti through the eyes of Port-au-Prince only,” said Fabienne Reid, one of the event’s organizers and a native of Miami. She added. “They think if there’s civil unrest in Port-au-Prince, then it’s the whole Haiti that’s like that, which is really not the case at all.”
In the past, Haiti was a leader in Caribbean tourism, opening the first Club Med resort along the so-called Haitian Riviera, which is located just north of the city. But in 1987, as the Duvalier dictatorship fell and the nation’s tourism sector was severely damaged, the French resort chain was boarded up. Following the 2010 earthquake, efforts were made to resurrect tourism by using hotels with renowned brands like Marriott and marketing initiatives targeted at young Haitian Americans who wanted to project a different kind of image for their homeland.
However, despite receiving 1.3 million visitors in 2018, the most since the World Bank started compiling statistics in 1995, the number of visitors fell to 938,000 in 2019.The decline occurred at the same time as tense demonstrations, kidnappings, travel advisories from the United States, Canada, and France, and the peyi lok countrywide demonstrations, which shut down the nation for months after the government tried to raise fuel prices.
Then COVID-19 appeared, followed by more travel advisories due to gasoline shortages, a rise in kidnappings, and increased gang activity. The founder and executive director of the Haitian-American Caucus, Samuel Darguin, said his attendance at the events this weekend is intended to convey the idea that “there is still hope.”
Darguin, who attended Le Dîner en Blanc when it was held in the capital in 2013 and 2014, stated,“I think for me, this year is even more important, just given everything that’s been going on in Haiti and the insecurity.” Darguin, a Haitian, claims that everyone in the party of eight with whom he is traveling “is so eager to be able to go back home”
Carla Beauvais and Johanne Buteau, the original organizers, hosted the dinner for the first time in Haiti in Port-au-Prince in 2013, and it continued until 2017. The picnic was moved to Cap-Hatien in 2019 by a new group of organizers who bought the license to take over and host it there. Jimmy Moise, a resident of South Florida who also holds the license for Le Dîner en Blanc in Palm Beach County, is this year’s host together with Reid and Johanna Auguste Pierre Louis.
Reid explained that the reason she and her other hosts decided to bring the event back to Haiti this year after postponing it in 2020 and 2021 due to COVID-19 was to use it as a way to boost tourism. “That’s the direction we want to move forward with, that is to move it in touristic cities in Haiti that show a different face and a different angle of Haiti. It’s what the world doesn’t know of Haiti,” she added. “For example, Okap, Jacmel and Les Cayes.”
Despite the periodic protests over blackouts, a shortage of fuel, and government incompetence, Cap-Hatien, commonly known as Okap, is still mostly safe despite its location around six hours north of Port-au-Prince. With the Palais Sans Soucis (Sans-Souci Palace) and the Citadelle Henri, the hilltop castle erected by former slaves and now a certified UNESCO world heritage site in Milot, it is the city where most of the country’s roots may be traced.
Bois Caman, the location of the secret Vodou ceremony where the slave uprising of the Haitian Revolution was plotted, is also located in the city. Road travel is still dangerous, so most people choose to fly instead. Spirit Airlines was the sole airline that flew from the United States, while other guests, like Darguin and his friends, elected to drive from the Dominican Republic.
Darguin, who is taking a journey from New York to the Dominican Republic in order to walk across the border into Haiti because he was unable to acquire a flight, said, “That just kind of shows our dedication to it.” “We could have said, ‘Hey, there are no direct flights. So we’re gonna just cancel.’ But by any means necessary, we need to show that as Haitian Americans, we are going to be in support of Haiti.”
Eslande Berjuste, a West Palm Beach resident and first-time picnic goer, said she made the gathering and Cap-Hatien this year’s trip destinations for the Travel Tribes travel service she started. She revealed that she will be traveling with a group of 16 people, including a Jamaican American and five Haitian Americans. “I’m honored to be able to not only be a part of it but to be able to bring people here who have never even thought of coming here and just showing them like Haiti, a different side of Haiti,” remarked Berjuste.
n 1988, Le Dîner en Blanc was created in Paris. the idea that Frenchman François Pasquier and his friends came up with. It started out as a little event but over time developed into a global phenomenon that is now held in more than 80 cities across 30 nations, including Miami this past April 19. Participants bring their own furniture to a site that is kept a secret until the very last minute. Table leaders in Haiti have changed the event to include meals as part of a package.
Regardless of the weather forecast, guests must show up. The meeting place for everyone attending will be at the departure point specified during registration. However, they will be driven by bus to the precise location, which won’t be known until they get there. A wave of the napkins will herald the start of the customary meal, which will feature unique acts and performances from visiting artists, once all the guests have arrived and have set up their tables.
The picnic isn’t the only activity, though. Some tour companies offer guests tours of the city and Labadie’s beaches as part of a comprehensive program.
According to Reid, over 60% of the guests will travel from the United States and Canada, and roughly 30% are locals.The last of the guests are from Europe. Tickets for the picnic on Saturday are sold out, and organizers reported a rise of more than 63% from the about 550 attendees it had in 2019, she noted.
Reid hopes that by promoting regional companies, the event would ultimately boost Haiti’s economic recovery. “It’s really those local entrepreneurs, tour companies, taxi drivers, waitresses at restaurants, those restaurant owners, hotel people, those tour operators and the employees that they have who survive under tourism activities,” she noted. The event’s planners predicted that it will bring in more than $600,000 for the Haitian economy.
“We sold out about 13 to 17 hotels, and countless Airbnbs are sold out,” she added ”We had to rent over 24 buses; the food, the wine, the excursions, and each tour is about $120 a pop.” Reid considers this year to be a success just based on the fact that hotels and restaurants are hiring twice as many people to prepare for the occasion. “We do Dîner en Blanc in other cities in the United States and in Europe,” Reid noted.
“To be completely transparent, Haiti is the least moneymaker for us, but the satisfaction comes with the impact it has on the local economy.”
Reid stated that her team is collaborating with numerous organizations to assure the participants’ safety, including the local station of the Haiti National Police, which has a dedicated task force in place to safeguard tourists. In order to blend in with the crowd, the organizers also recruited their own security company. Each bus carrying the passengers will be escorted by authorized police personnel.
“The security is top notch for us,” Reid added. “We’re not naive about what’s going on. We’re not in denial that Port-au-Prince is really going through a lot — corruption, insecurity, you name it, it’s there. However, the whole country is not in that same state.” The weekend has seen a number of tourism-related activities, and Angie Bell, who splits her time between Miami and Haiti, is using them to publicize her efforts to clean up the streets of Cap-Hatien.
Bell, who attended the event in 2019 and this year opted to partner up through her social initiative, Bien Nettoyer or Well Cleaned, stated, “We have a table of 30 people, between locals and their friends who are coming from outside of Okap.”