/ 25 March 2010

Quake survivors rebuild dreams in Haiti tourist town

Among the cracked colonial houses and shattered dreams that litter the beautiful Haitian beach resort and carnival city of Jacmel, a resilient people dare to hope as they rebuild for the future.

Disaster struck just as Haiti, a popular jet-set destination in the 1960s and 1970s for rich Americans and Europeans, was beginning to get back on the tourist map after years of political turmoil.

A Conde Nast Traveller piece in September boasted of its “ravishing natural assets, thrilling history, and magnetic culture”, and there was talk of opening up direct flights from Miami to Jacmel, the jewel in Haiti’s tourism crown.

The January 12 earthquake ended all that, killing more than 220 000 people, leaving 1,3-million homeless and relegating Haiti to near the bottom of anyone’s travel list.

Jacmel was hit particularly hard. Almost 500 people out of a population of 40 000 perished. The quake struck during the southern city’s vital January to March carnival, devastating the local economy.

“During the carnival period we normally make enough money for the rest of the year, for our children, for our families,” said Jules Andre, an artisan who fashions the exquisite papier-mache masks and decorations Jacmel is famous for.

Locals, who call themselves Jacmellians and are fiercely proud of the city’s reputation as Haiti’s cultural heart, had created a safe atmosphere here that was in marked contrast to the crime-ridden streets of the capital.

The city was largely unaltered from the 19th century when wealthy coffee merchants lapped up luxury in their mansions, looking out over wrought-iron balconies forged in Spain and France.

But many facades now lie in ruins and it is hard to imagine that this haven of relative tranquillity, less than three hours by car or a 15-minute hop by plane from Port-au-Prince, will ever be restored to its pre-quake splendour.

A quarter of Jacmel’s 700 hotel rooms were destroyed and some establishments, like the optimistically named Peace of Mind, were completely flattened.

Other attractions did emerge unscathed. At Cyvardie beach, turquoise Caribbean waters lap a natural lagoon ringed by soft white sand. A death-defying drive into the hills reveals Bassin Bleu, a secret world of stunning waterfalls and shady rocks to plunge from.

“Jacmel is very important for tourism because we have a lot of places to visit, the architecture, nice beaches, nice people,” said Georges Metellus, who grew up here and runs an art foundation for children.

“My dream is to see Jacmel as I knew it before, to see a lot of tourists come, to rebuild our beach communities, our houses.”

Making strides
Unlike the painfully slow progress that is hard to measure in the capital, Jacmel is making strides down the road to recovery, harnessing all its Jacmellian spirit to dream that a future is still possible.

Energised by an ambitious young mayor who has created cash-for-work programmes, teams in green hard-hats busily clear the river-beds where debris was dumped after the quake.

Culture Ministry officials say they still hope those Miami flights will one day roll in and that Jacmel can add substantially to the 25 000 tourists it saw in 2009.

For Annie Nocenti, an American journalist and filmmaker who teaches in Jacmel at the Cine Institute, where students have collaborated on remarkable post-quake film clips, the key is safeguarding the architecture.

“The draw of the tourism was because of these beautiful buildings. If they don’t restore at least those facades, that’s really going to hurt tourism here.”

Jacmel residents reacted furiously when the local authorities put red dots on all the buildings they wanted to tear down because they were considered structurally unsafe.

“There’s a certain paranoia that someone is going to take advantage of the levelled areas to put in monster hotels,” said Nocenti. “I doubt it because who would invest in Haiti right now considering there has just been an earthquake.

“The local economy has been devastated. It’s going to take years to get people to feel safe enough to come to Haiti again,” she said, pointing out that the rich weekend crowd from Port-au-Prince had deserted Jacmel’s beaches.

Bayard Jean-Bernard, a 28-year-old student at the Cine Institute who worked as a tour guide before the quake, said the spirit of Jacmel was dying without the carnival, which was cancelled because of the disaster.

“We like to have that feeling, we like to have that atmosphere. We are missing this atmosphere this year.” — AFP