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From: Carl Fombrun <carlfombrun@iopener.net>


Having just returned from fairy tale Las Vegas, Nevada where I stayed for 5 days, I found myself reflecting in this city that never sleeps, where tourism rules and blooms, as to what Haiti's tourist industry used to be  in its golden years, and what it has become today.

"Eat, drink, and feel famous" is the Viva Las Vegas motto for the ordinary tourist which was also the same idea on a smaller scale in the heydays of the travel industry in Haiti. Las Vegas has all the tourist traps and a limitation of choices which still makes it a fabulous success. 35 million visitors a year.

Haiti could learn from it in a town with plenty of drawbacks: A brutal temperature of 106 to 113 fahrenheit in a desert environment, a mafia reputation, dubious morality, no native population per se and a "plastic" culture which can be described in one word: gambling. Excluding its everyday workers who reside in the outskirts , the Strip which is similar to New York's Times Square, has a 100 per cent tourist population.                                         
Anyone with a dollar regardless of race, gender, religion, cultural identity or otherwise, is welcome.  It's an open town but the legalities in the book are strictly applied. One should not even think of breaking them; zero tolerance is enforced.

Haiti's Golden Era of Tourism began in 1949 with the World's fair and reached its peak in 1956. What one government ( Estime ) created in 1949 with the International Exposition, was continued under the next administration (Magloire) from 1950 to 1956.                         
In Haiti, most governmental administrations have traditionally been against each other's projects when taking over power, but in this case reason prevailed and the country as a 
whole benefited.

With the recent passing of General Paul E. Magloire at age 94, President of Haiti from 1950 to 1956, it is appropriate to remember the good things of his presidency.  There were strong efforts at modernization and these were peaceful times.  Due to good coffee prices Haiti's economy moved forward under Magloire.  Many infrastructures were put in place.  As per " The Guardian " of the United Kingdom, an article written by Greg Chamberlain : " Under Magloire, Haiti became a mecca for American tourists and world ranking glitterari, among them Truman Capote, Irving Berlin and Noel Coward." 

In the early 50s Dominican Republic also known as Santo Domingo took a back seat to Haiti in the tourist industry. After Cuba, Haiti was top notch in the Caribbean when it came to tourism.                                                                                                                       
In the international community it was favored by the likes of celebrities like James Jones author of "From here to Eternity" who even got married in Haiti, and to name a few more : Claudette Colbert, Mike Wallace, Harry Belafonte, Ben Gage, Esther Williams, Adam Clayton Powell, Katherine Dunham, Ava Gardner, Erroll Flynn . Many more well known personalities of that time , the world over, came to Haiti.

In those days I was privileged to have a front seat as Public Relations Attache to the the Government Tourist Office in Port-au-Prince, which was an independent entity from the Commerce Department, working with a Director, an Assistant-Director, and a full staff for the promotion of tourism.                                                                                                                                     
My position of " Attache a la Direction" " was subsequently occupied by Aubelin Jolicoeur who became well known due in part to his bubbly personality, many talents in the public relations field, and his being mentioned profusely as "Petit Pierre" in Graham Greene's novel "The Comedians."  Eventually he would become the Head of Tourism under General Namphy's government in the late eighties.                                                                                                                            
In the early fifties I knew Aubelin as a reporter for "Le Nouvelliste" and we developed a cordial relationship. Often we would go to one of his relatives to shoot the breeze, a Mr. Beauboeuf I believe, who had a bar-restaurant close to the Oloffson Hotel.

Those were the heydays. An interesting aside -- Through Aubelin, I had become friendly with Captain Max Bazelais, a man who truly had a joy for life and a great sense of humor, I suppose he had to have it, due to his position then as Chief of the National Penitentiary.                                                                                                                              
For Carnival one year, I asked Max if he could make me an authentic prisoner's uniform of the white and red stripes sort, for the festivities. White and red stripes were for prisoners having committed violent crimes specifically murder, and the blue and white were for common crimes, as for instance disorderly conduct.                                                              
No problem he told me, Come to the jail tomorrow. I arrived the next day and as soon as I was introduced to him he gave a direct order to the sergeant in his office to arrest me immediately.    

I was put in an authentic jail cell and a tailor was ordered to fit me with a red and white stripes prisoner's uniform, under the supevision of the menacing sergeant. This ordeal of my being incarcerated lasted for about an hour to the great amusement of my "friend" the captain.                                                                                                                                     
I did put that uniform to good use in many other carnivals due to the price I had to pay to receive it. I can have a good belly laugh at it now but then, at the jail, it was not funny. Rest in peace Max, I never held a grudge against you and I appreciate your sense of humor even more today. Those were the days of youth, hope, and daring moments which gave life a special flavor.

Haitian entertainers were often invited to the adjacent islands to promote their artistry. In '54, the well known choregrapher of Haitian folkore dances, Jean-Leon Destine and      Ti-Roro , the famous national drummer in those days, and I, were officially invited to visit St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands by the governor at that time.                                        

For a week there were festivities at the Virgin Isle Hotel where Haitian folkore was admirably promoted by those two great artists.  Ti-Roro, Destine and I shared a suite at the Virgin Isle but one problem was that female tourists would knock at all hours, desiring to talk to him or to take him on. I leave it to the reader's fertile imagination. In those days giving one's room number to a perfect stranger was perfectly normal. And Ti-Roro loved the idea.  Ti-Roro's English was improving remarkably by the minute.

A few other trivial and amusing stories come to mind to describe these exciting times when Port-au-au-Prince was the celebrities' destination.

In the fifties, Perez Prado, King of the Mambo, visited Haiti. On the Saturday of his arrival he performed at the then famous " Cabane Choucoune " night club where the General-President Paul Eugene Magloire and his entourage were present to welcome him. He dedicated a musical arrangement with four saxophonists titled " Kanson Fe" i.e. "Iron Pants" to Magloire as he was popularly called then. The band never stopped playing until the dancers stopped dancing.

To conclude this glorious week-end, the next day, a public relations attache to the National Tourist Office, I accompanied Perez Prado to the "Aux Calebasses" night club owned by a Mr. Jean Lumarque, in the populous Carrefour district, outside of Port-au-Prince.

When we arrived, seeing a crowd, I was told Perez Prado was inside dancing a mambo. This was puzzling being that at that very moment the king of the mambo was seated next to me in my car.  The puzzle was quickly solved.  The "impostor" dancing the mambo was a well known friend and popular businessman, a " bon vivant " by the name of Milo Hakim. Those two really looked like twins and the crowd in its enthousiasm mistook Milo for Perez. 

Other memories are of other celebrities like Celia Cruz, Daniel Santos, Bienvenido Granda and countless others who received the same apotheosis when they came to Haiti in the fifties.

Another regular visitor to Bowen Field Airport in PAP was Porfirio Rubirosa, the famous international playboy first married to Dominican dictator Trujillo's eldest daughter and subsequently to heiresses Barbara Hutton and Doris Duke. He had on a regular basis waiting for him at the Porrt-au-Prince airport a supply of "bois cochon", an elixir withdrawn from a specific tree in Haiti, which claim to fame then was similar to the drug Viagra today.  

Now , let's go forward in time almost 50 years later. Tourism is presently dead  due mainly to political instability, mounting problems of poverty, environmental devastation,  and crime. The government is putting its best foot forward mainly in the city of Jacmel. Haiti has presently 800 hotel rooms with President Aristide claiming that there will be 7,000 hotel rooms by the year 2004.                                                                                       
The Dominican Republic a.k.a. Santo Domingo which shares the same island , has presently 20,000 international-quality rooms. Tourist guide books or advertisements in the Miami Herald don't even acknowledge that Haiti shares the same island with the Dominican Repulic. Ironically In the fifties, Haiti was the focal point to encourage people to visit Santo Domingo.

It is not an easy task to revive tourism mostly when reading the latest statements by  Frank McCourt, author of Pulitzer Price winning "Angela's Ashes," recently returning from Haiti.                                                                                                                  

There is what he had to say: " I have traveled to other places like Caracas and Bombay but nothing compares to the helplessness I saw in Haiti...... We have a huge Caribbean community in New York, many of them Haitians, and we never heard a word from our two Democratic senators Schumer and Clinton or our congessional delegation.                         
"We never hear a promising word from this White House.... So it's up to us to pressure our elected leaders to initiate some kind of attention to this nation of 7 million that is in our doorstep.The country that gives Haiti most aid is Cuba and we have a goddamned blockade around it......                                                                                                              
"President Aristide is doing his best, but his opponents just paralyse him. So nothing filters to the people.  When it does, the gangs of thieves usually rob it. My trip to Haiti was simply unforgettable. The next time I hear someone complain about anything at all, I'll tell them to shut up, you could live in Haiti."

"Gen zanmi ak zanmi" in cultural translation :A good friend is better than a brother.

Carl Fombrun can be found on the Internet carl@fombrun.com or www.fombrun.com


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