Is tourism in Haiti inherently exploitative?
I recently returned from Haiti, where I was a tourist traveling around the country for 6 days with my friends Jamie and Becky. As I spent time there, I felt increasingly aware of the difficult if not miserable spot that the country as a whole finds itself in, even though there are of course wonderful and incredibly beautiful and creative things happening too: art is everywhere.
Everyone knows about the 2010 earthquake which devastated the capital Port Au Prince – which was indeed terrible and its ramifications are still being felt – that natural disaster is really only one more thing for the Haitians to deal with, on top of a long and excruciating history of manmade, political and human disasters.
I read the book Mountains Beyond Mountains while I was traveling, upon the recommendation of a bunch of my friends. It’s putatively the story of a white doctor from Boston, Paul Farmer, who is trying his best to enlist a growing group of doctors and philanthropists to help the deeply impoverished town of Cange in Haiti achieve state-of-the-art healthcare. It’s an impressive book, and beautifully written, and doesn’t shy away from frank discussions of how the United States has meddled with and manipulated the politics of Haiti to its own advantage. You should all read it.
One of the most memorable scenes from the book, at least for me, is when the writer discusses the juxtaposition of spending one day in Cange in Haiti and then flying directly to New York, or maybe Paris, but in any case a glamorous, rich, first-world city, and how it seems like two bizarrely separate worlds. Farmer says that no, in fact, it’s exactly what you’d expect – that there’s a direct line between the poverty of Haiti and the richness of New York. New York is rich in part because Haiti is poor, and we New Yorkers depend, even if invisibly, on exploitation of places like Haiti to stay rich. When you concentrate wealth in one place, you are concentrating poverty as well.
That brings me to my question today. Is it inherently exploitative to be a tourist in Haiti?
Reasons it is:
- First and foremost, as Americans we can choose to visit Haiti, and then return after 6 days. Haitians cannot choose to visit us for 6 days, even if they had the money to do it. And again, that discrepancy is directly due to U.S. foreign policy.
- American tourists like myself are impossibly rich and powerful compared to the people we interact with in Haiti. That creates a weird and deep distance between people. It means that everyone on the street is aware of me and nobody fucks with me because the consequences for them would be dire. That’s what power looks like. As a result, t may be impossible to actually have a normal human relationship with a native Haitian.
- As a white person, you pay something like 10 times the normal costs of anything, which is both strange and totally understandable, but in any case it means that you are seen as a piggy bank by anyone with a service or a good to sell, which is pretty much almost anyone you meet.
- There aren’t very many tourists in Haiti. All the white people we met there were there on religious or charitable missions, or worked for the UN, or were trying to set up businesses along the lines of Etsy for Haitian folk art, or are themselves art collectors. That adds to the uncomfortable sense of dependency you feel as a tourist.
- When you are at a hotel, you are being served by Haitians. It’s impossible not to see the historical racial symbolism of this, given that Haitians were brought from West Africa as slaves to the French, and not to mention the more recent history which has made American influence so undermining.
- There’s a reverse sex tourism industry in Haiti, which is to say that middle-aged white women are known to go to Haiti as well as the Dominican Republic to pay for sex with young men. That fact further clouds the possibility, at least for me, of even having a single conversation in which the goal is non-transactional. How do you know if your joke is actually funny? Or if the cultural exchange you are happily engaged in is truly reciprocal? How could it be?
- Conclusion: it is in fact inherently exploitative to be a tourist in Haiti, and it’s not something you can choose not to participate in.
On the other hand, here are a few reasons I’d argue against my own conclusion:
- First and foremost, you are what you are as an American, even if you’re not in Haiti. You are just more aware of what that means to Haitians when you are in Haiti. In other words, if the decadence of ample food, and wifi, and excellent health care is in part due to the impoverished state of Haiti, maybe it’s good you are made aware of that.
- Haitians desperately need money, and tourists have money. If lots of tourists went to Haiti, it might be better for Haiti than a bunch of money coming in the form of aid.
- My friend Becky came with us to Haiti, and she stayed a few extra days and connected with a Haitian biologist and nerded out completely in a national park (she’s a huge biology nerd and nature photographer). It seems to me that, if it is possible to cross the human divide, and get out of a transactional conversation and into another place, it might happen in the context of a scientific discussion.
- I’m not a biology nerd, but I love music. I felt like the closest I came to normal human interaction was through discussing and enjoying live music.
- It’s really fun to travel, even if you learn sad things. You become more aware and more grateful, and you bring that back to your community and your family. There’s something to be said for simple cultural awareness. Plus, now I really care about Haiti, which maybe is irrelevant, but may someday become relevant, who knows.
I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Update. A comment from Jamie:
Fundamentally, I do and always have agreed to your point of exploitation. I knew we would be weird voyeurs going in to the trip, and as we discussed on the last day, Cathy, we were both acutely aware of how it would look if we started taking pictures of Haitians and the streets from inside of our fancy 4-by-4. It’s a complicated dynamic. And I think you’re right that it is nearly impossible to have a normal, balanced relationship there; I felt similarly while traveling around West Africa. It’s like we have a bank account and a green card attached to our foreheads, and it can be difficult to trust that someone is seeing us beyond that. Even if they have no ulterior motives other than being our friend, that trust is hard to grasp and hang on to.All of that said, however, I do believe that it is incredibly important to spend time in countries and cultures that are different from our own. And I believe even more fervently that we should visit those countries with a mind to experience and enjoy rather than “save” it through mission-based organizations. That’s not to say that all aid is bad aid (on the contrary, many aid orgs and NGOs are very, very important!), but I do push back against the notion that one should always attach a mission to a visit. I’ve found that going somewhere as a volunteer or aid worker puts an even bigger wall between cultures (“I am here to help you because I have the means to help you and it is clear you can’t help yourself”). I strongly believe that just sitting, listening, and learning without the motive to “save” is one of the only ways of conducting a fair and balanced cultural exchange. I want to listen first, not fix first. Once I listen, and begin to understand (as if I ever could…), only then do I feel comfortable enough to think about working in/for a country.Additionally, on the notion of choosing to vacation in a non-traditional spot that is so clearly economically and politically struggling, is it better to only travel to first world, highly developed countries and ignore that others exist? Should we blindly trust the media (and all of our friends, relatives, etc) that constantly tells us that a country is “bad” and avoid them? How will we change the discourse surrounding cultural and economic imbalances without having any first-hand experience? Are we perpetuating a notion that we are “too good” to visit a country that is struggling to stand on solid ground?It’s all a complicated notion. And on a specific note, I’d love to open the floor a little on your #5 exploitative point (“When you are at a hotel, you are being served by Haitians. It’s impossible not to see the historical racial symbolism of this, given that Haitians were brought from West Africa as slaves to the French, and not to mention the more recent history which has made American influence so undermining.”). True. I think it’s important that we are aware of that dynamic. On the other hand, what would it look like if we were being served by ex-pats? Would we not be rebelling that we are not supporting Haitians and the native economy? That the ex-pats are just making a place for other ex-pats to work and remove all Haitians from the operation? Tricky. I’m interested in hearing both of your thoughts on that.