Haiti Overview © Ken Bosma
Travellers will notice a striking landscape of hills, mountains and deep valleys as they descend into Port-au-Prince. Culturally, they will appreciate how distinct Haiti is from the Dominican Republic, even though the two countries share the island of Hispaniola. The overwhelming majority of Haitians are of Afro-Caribbean ancestry, while the Dominican Republic is far more diverse demographically. Haitians have also developed a number of unique cultural and linguistic trends, highly influenced by the nation's African heritage. Indeed, some say Haiti is really a West African country located in the Caribbean.
Known as 'the pearl of the Caribbean', Haiti was once among France's richest colonies. Today, it endures widespread crime, poverty and civil disturbance. What's more, a catastrophic earthquake struck the country in January 2010, killing nearly 300,000 people and devastating local infrastructure. It destroyed many major landmarks in Port-au-Prince, including the Presidential Palace, Port-au-Prince Cathedral, and the National Assembly building. Hospitals, transport facilities and communication systems remain inadequate.
The fact that dozens of sleek cruise liners still visit a corner of Haiti is a beacon of hope for future tourism. The glittering white liners head out from Miami and deliver passengers to the cordoned off port of Labadee. The destination lies adjacent to Haiti's colourful city of Cap-Haitien. Visitors are safe to shop for souvenirs, sample local cuisine and generally enjoy themselves on Haiti's lovely northern coastline. Cap-Haitien is arguably preferable to Port-au-Prince as a tourist destination because it suffered little damage in 2010.
Though most governments discourage travel to Haiti, intrepid visitors will find surviving natural beauty and many exciting volunteer opportunities. Foreign aid and local ingenuity are steadily improving conditions, but travellers will struggle to explore the country if they aren't on a cruise or part of a volunteer programme. On the plus side, visitors are often surprised by Haitians' friendly and hospitable nature.