Home > Becky Jaffe, musing > Is tourism in Haiti inherently exploitative?

Is tourism in Haiti inherently exploitative?

November 25, 2014

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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?
  7. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.


Categories: Becky Jaffe, musing
  1. Gordon
    November 25, 2014 at 9:25 am

    I grew up in Asia, and experienced some of the phenomena that you’ve described by virtue of being visibly different (and therefore obviously from a different economic spot). I don’t think that the US relationship with Haiti is a model for anything, but I don’t think that “exploitative” (MW: unfairly or cynically using another person or group for profit or advantage) is the right word to describe it.

    Going through your reasons, #1 might be unfair – it’s less clear to me that it’s necessarily to the US’ exclusive advantage. For example, it’s Haiti’s decision to let Americans visit their country, no?

    #’s 2, 3 & 4 read like an unrelated argument: yes, it’s difficult to have a normal human relationship with someone who views you as a piggy-bank – but if that’s how you’re viewed, aren’t you the one that’s being cynically used, in spite of your good intentions?

    #5 is an interesting sociological point, but as you note in your second point against, you’re paying for a service and both sides are benefiting from the trade… it’s not inherently exploitative. I’m hesitant to take that argument too far in the context of your sixth point, but the power dynamic in the context of a woman paying a man for sex is very different to the traditional model of prostitution – I don’t think it would be impossible to argue that the exploitation in this instance runs the other way, on MW’s definition.

    Haitians and tourists have very different economic positions and prospects, and some of those differences are due to US government policy, as well as historical factors such as slavery and domestic dictatorship. It doesn’t necessarily follow from those premises that tourism is inherently exploitative: one might equally argue that tourism offers local Haitians a chance to exploit tourists, notwithstanding the position that US government policy might put them in.


  2. November 25, 2014 at 11:17 am

    If I were poor and watching my children go hungry I would welcome the opportunity to interact with a “piggy bank” and take that piggy bank on a tour, serve them a meal, clean their room, or in any other way make a bit of money to feed my children. As wonderful as your empathy and consideration are, I think they are misapplied if they result in you deciding not to give those less fortunate than you a chance to work and provide for their families.
    If you decide not to visit and as a result a Haitian parent is even more under-employed, a few Haitian children even more under-fed, and Americans a bit more ignorant since you can’t share your compelling, firsthand experience of this amazing country, then who really comes out ahead?

    “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,”

    I would both agree and disagree with this. Right now we have a system where, yes, on a macro geo-political level our government exploits developing countries for both political and economic reasons. However, that shouldn’t be a factor in determining whether to visit a place. For an individual deciding whether to visit a country it’s largely irrelevant what behavior leviathan bureaucracies seeking geo-political advantage are engaging in. Sadly, our government doesn’t really care what lone individuals like you or I think about American foreign policy toward Haiti.

    However, on the micro, individual level Americans and Haitians can engage in trade and mutually gain. If Haitian individuals can provide something American individuals want (a wonderful, educational experience in Haiti), and American individuals can provide something Haitian individuals desperately need (dollars) then we can improve each other’s lives.

    I would suggest that if we (Americans) want our government to stop exploiting developing countries then the very best thing we can do is to educate ourselves about the people who live in those countries, to visit them, to form relationships (like your friend the biologist), and then, as an informed people with a personal stake in the outcome, collectively demand change from our elected leaders.

    If we don’t visit, if we don’t make those human connections first hand, if we hibernate in our first-world cocoons, then we’re less likely to ever understand the reprehensible behavior our government engages in, we’re less likely to care about the foreign people our government exploits, and, by extension, we’re less likely to demand or see change.


  3. Ron
    November 25, 2014 at 11:30 am

    I love your analysis. I would claim that tourism everywhere is somewhat exploitative, and there is quite a lot of this even in NY(NJ). In fact it’s gotten out of control right here.

    If you look up to the ski nowadays, you will see helicopters constantly buzzing up and down the Hudson, carrying tourists. For the enjoyment of a few tourists, hundreds of thousands of people along the Hudson have to listen to a constant chop all day long, hundreds of flights every day!. If it sounds unbelievable, check out http://www.stopthechopnynj.org/. These tourists are coming to enjoy themselves in NY, and then trampling all over our environment and our quality of life.
    I’m sure most of them are not even giving it a second thought. Of course most of this noise was “optimized” (credit goes to FAA & NY EDC) to affect the poorer and voiceless neighborhood.
    So we are not immune to his exploitation as Americans. To me, this is an example of tourism that has adverse effects because of its extreme size and lack of environmental and social sensitivity.
    I guess my point is that there is a continuum of exploitation, and ironically we’re seeing some of the worst kinds at home.
    Personally I now try to reduce my impact when I travel. I would never take a heli-tour for example, and then in most cases I prefer to backpack and stay away from large resorts.


  4. CG
    November 25, 2014 at 4:49 pm

    There’s an argument that eco-tourism is killing the Galapagos, better they visited Haiti and dropped a few bucks. As humans we exploit everything.


  5. Felix
    November 25, 2014 at 8:08 pm

    Haiti is not really very big. Have you ever considered that there are more Haitians in the US than in Haiti? So why not integrate Haiti into the US? Most of the Haitians would leave for Florida and NY where their relatives are and some would remain and Haiti could become a retirement home for ageing white folks and with less people the area would be self sustaining. It would not mean giving up their culture unless you mean their macho culture tendencies. 7 million Haitians is but a drop in the US population.


    • November 26, 2014 at 5:23 pm

      It is not true that there are more Haitians in the US than in Haiti. The whole Haitian Dispora is bigger than the current population but that includes a lot more countries than just the US. There are around 1 million Haitian born people in the US and about another million of Haitian descent. compared to Haiti’s population of over 10 million


  6. November 26, 2014 at 5:26 am

    I think tourism, like other commercial transactions, is not inherently exploitation, usually isn’t exploitation, but can be sometimes. The key danger is that being someplace for a short and single time will give you a bias to over-consume common resources there (a view, clean air/water, public space, etc).

    One idea for forming deeper/less transactional relationships on your next trip: arrange to lead a math class, a math circle, or give a public lecture. You know a lot of cool and inspiring things that can be shared in an hour or less.


  7. Dennis
    November 26, 2014 at 11:19 am

    Of course it is exploitative – exploitative to your wallet!
    Re: “As a white person, you pay something like 10 times the normal costs of anything”
    Living in the USA we often complain about race issues. But it is important to remember that compared to other countries US is a shining beacon of racial equality. Imagine the shitstorm if Wyclef Jean decided to sell tickets for 10x the price to white people? Something like that could never happen in the USA now.


  8. Dennis
    November 26, 2014 at 11:35 am

    Yes, but I think that this is actually “both strange and totally understandable” – being poor means having high credit risk to the mortgage issuer to compensate for the risk, and being black is -sadly- correlated with poverty. I am not familiar with a study that demonstrated that black customers pay more for mortgages, adjusted for income and neighborhood.


    • November 26, 2014 at 11:41 am

      Look it up, it wasn’t fair nor legal.

      On Wed, Nov 26, 2014 at 11:35 AM, mathbabe wrote:



  9. Dennis
    November 26, 2014 at 11:53 am

    I stand corrected re Countrywide’s settlement.


  10. Dennis
    November 26, 2014 at 12:37 pm

    According to Steven D. Levitt (Freakonomics) white customers pay more than black or Hispanic customers http://www.chicagobooth.edu/capideas/apr09/4.aspx . Sadly there is no Fair Housing Act equivalent to protect people from this racist policy.


  11. Paul
    November 27, 2014 at 9:51 am

    It really does not matter how you dress a baby, they won’t care … ’bout captures the image it seems… Great flow Mathbabe!!!

    Happy thanksgiving!


  12. Ed Schaefer
    November 27, 2014 at 5:53 pm

    Gorgeous Mathbabe – that was a well-though out essay.

    Advice from others has helped me during work I’ve done in the developing world: “Your goal should be to learn” and “All you can do is be with the people”.

    While helping create a math department at Landivar University in Guatemala, I found that when I sat with everyone and we shared how things were done in our respective departments, it helped balance the power dynamic. Landivar is a private, Jesuit university. We all found it hilarious that at both of our universities, you can tell the student parking lot from the faculty parking lot by the quality of the cars, despite the fact that there is more than a 10-1 ratio in economic terms.

    While in Cuzco Peru, there was a parade downtown held by the University of San Antonio de Abad. While the parade was stalled I walked right into the Math/Statistic Department contingent and introduced myself. They invited me to march with them and to later give a colloquium talk. This resulted in my being entertained (bar visits, picnics, etc.) throughout the week by members of the department. I took the opportunity to learn from them how they did things in their department.

    During my two years working at the math department in Mzuzu, Malawi, friends from abroad would come visit me. I’d take them to meetings of a local AIDS outreach group that I work with (see vwira.org). There the visitors were at the disadvantage, not understanding the situation regarding HIV/AIDS in Malawi, which my local friends explained to them. This helped put people on a more equal footing. One time, when female Japanese friends came, they, and the Malawian women, broke into a women’s encounter group where they explained to each other the status and roles of women in their respective countries.

    I have Malawian friends who are excellent dancers and musicians.On more than one occasion I have arranged for them to give lessons to my visiting friends. Again, having them teach the foreigners helps balance the power dynamics in the interaction.

    If the visitor can seek out such learning opportunities, I feel the visit becomes less exploitative.


  1. November 27, 2014 at 6:55 am
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