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6203: Haiti's Battles Idle an Army of Tourist Guides (fwd)

From: nozier <nozier@tradewind.net>

Haiti's Battles Idle an Army of Tourist Guides By DAVID GONZALEZ

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti ? A teenager scrambled into the street near a
downtown hotel,waving his slender arms at an oncoming car as if he were
guiding an airplane to the gate.As the driver, a foreigner, parked and
stepped from the car, the young man trotted out about all the English he
"What's up, dog?" he said, with a bounce as he approached the foreigner,
who was
already brushing him off with a shrug. "What's up?"Not much, since the
foreigner looked away and walked off without giving him a tip. The youth
returned to the sidewalk, where he sat and waited for another tourist.
It could be a long vigil, since most of the visitors to Haiti these days
are missionaries, relief workers and journalists.
Fifty years ago, pleasure seekers flocked to this side of Hispaniola,
while hardly anyone
bothered to venture across the border to the Dominican Republic. But
since the fall of
Jean-Claude Duvalier, known as Baby Doc, whose corrupt and sometimes
government maintained an appearance of civic order, Haiti's tourism has
withered while
the country has been racked by political and social unrest. Fear of
AIDS, which many
Haitians feel has unfairly stigmatized them, may also have been a
factor. Many Caribbean
guidebooks no longer bother even to mention Haiti, which still has some
beautiful seaside
towns in the south. Instead they focus on the resorts in the Dominican
Guiding tourists was once an honorable profession that helped many eager
young men
here escape poverty. But these days the guides have the bored look of
Maytag repairmen,spending long days and weeks outside of near-empty
hotels. Around town, vendors sit idly by dozens of colorful paintings
that hang unsold like permanent street art.
Frank Bernard, one of the guides who waits by the old Holiday Inn off
the city's Champ de Mars plaza, cannot even remember when he last worked
with a tourist.
"I have been a guide a long time," said Mr. Bernard, 43, whose command
of English has
slipped because he gets so little practice these days. "The business is
not very good.
When Jean-Claude Duvalier was around, the business was good. But it was
also not so
good, since he made many people dead. But when Jean-Claude was around,
we had
tourists."Of course, that is the contradiction many of the guides
recall: the holiday booms of the past came during a dictatorship that
none of them long for. And whatever work they get these days ? escorting
journalists or relief workers ? usually means by definition that the
country is facing some new problem.
They talk about tourism in the past tense, like old men at the
barbershop recalling their
glory days. For some of them, like Ronald Joanel, the work was his
salvation from a hard
job at a soap factory. He had quit school when he was a teenager to work
at the factory,
where he earned 50 cents a day. He used it to buy books to learn about
the tourism
industry and to teach himself English."I bought a book called `English
in 90 Days,' " said Mr. Joanel, 38. "It took me a year." He first went
to the Holiday Inn in 1980 to try to snare some business, but the
old-timers there ? men who learned their English during the American
occupation that ended in 1934? discouraged competition. Instead, he
joined some younger would-be guides by the Palace Hotel.
"They were poor and they paid me to write letters for them," he said. "I
watched them
and learned about all the places they would go, how to talk to tourists.
The most
important thing was you had to be nice. You had to talk a lot. And be
He said the last time he had a tourist job was in 1987, one year after
the dictator fled the
country. Many of the guides with whom he once worked have moved on: some
died, after spending their money on nightclubs and women, while the
smarter ones got visas for the United States or went to the Dominican
Republic to work.
Since then, he said, he makes his money by working for journalists or by
selling assorted
merchandise. His advice to tourists: stay in your hotel rather than even
try to get
Port-au- Prince. The streets are so dilapidated that it takes a
four-wheel-drive vehicle to
get around.
Tourism officials admitted that the country is not ready for any large
groups of tourists,
although they said more than 118,000 tourists visited this year, not
including Haitians
visiting relatives. People in business say that claim is excessive,
since the island only has
900 hotel rooms.
Still, they speak with conviction about the cultural riches of their
island, where art, music
and religion still bear a strong African influence. With some
justification, they said their
country's crime problems are no worse than those in Jamaica.
"I think the reality here has been deformed," said Elizabeth Vieux, a
spokeswomen for the
Secretary of State for Tourism. "We're not worried. Port-au-Prince is
ugly, but we have
the rest of the country, which is beautiful."We should be conscious of
what we have. We have immense riches. We are aware of the work we must
do, but we are also conscious of the potential we have." The chaos and
bustle of Port-au- Prince feels far away at Boutilliers, a majestic
scenic overlook in the hills. Souvenir salesmen stand and wait, almost
as still as the wooden carvings they place out each day on blankets. The
telescope on the terrace is broken ?not that many people are around to
make use of it.
Jean-Marc Michel remembers how he used to take visitors up there at
night, to see the
city spread out before them, the vista studded with twinkling lights.
His last tourist job
was two months ago: $40 for four hours spent with an American who took
pictures of
garbage, he said.He would rather take people to the Iron Market, a
maze-like shed brimming with souvenir plaques, paintings and religious
statues. Along the way, he said, he would point out some historical
sites.There is the old Fort Dimanche prison, now a squatter's village;
the church of St.-Jean Bosco, the onetime pulpit of president-elect
Jean- Bertrand Aristide (and target of the Tontons Macoute secret
police), and the monument to Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the hero of
independence, which was covered with an Aristide campaign poster on that
day."Aristide is the second Dessalines," he said, before pointing out a
corner where several people were shot in the days before the
presidential election last month. "There is Aristide's church. That's
where he was in 1988 when the Macoutes came on a Sunday and attacked
it." The church is still roofless and empty."I used to take tourists
there a couple of years ago," he said. "It's on my route. But I don't
come here often anymore."