Fifth in a six-part series on Haiti's environmental problems. Click here for the first part, second, third and fourth.
ARCADINS COAST, Haiti -- There was a time when Haiti was known as the "Pearl of the Antilles," a Caribbean vacation destination as famous as Jamaica or Puerto Rico are today.
Haiti's sandy beaches and coral reefs lured tourists by the boatload. Its 1,100 miles of coast offered playgrounds for scuba divers, yachtsmen and cruise ships. And the tourism trade until the early 1990s provided solid incomes for Haitians.
"It was much easier because you had a lot of tourists," recalled Jose Roy, a Haitian dive master here. "You really didn't have to fight for survival."
The government and private entities want the good old days and the tourists to return. They are pouring money into schemes aimed at restoring and protecting marine areas, much of which are still pristine despite the devastation wrought on land by deforestation and dense development of wetlands and floodplains.
Haiti even came close to establishing a national marine reserve here before yet another government was ousted at the end of October, an indication that political instability may still get in the way of marine and coastal restoration.
That Haiti has healthy marine resources is a small miracle. Its coastline have been damaged by unrestricted dumping, runoff from eroded and deforested mountains and uncontrolled fishing. Beaches near cities are littered with trash and sewage, and reefs close to shore are choked with silt washed into the water by torrential rains.
"As far as marine and coastal legislation goes, there is none," said Rafael Rodriguez-Leal, a researcher with Columbia University's Earth Institute who arrived here recently to help with U.N. work. "There are no quotas for fishing, there are no permits to be issued, and as long as you are a local fisherman, you don't need a license."
Reefs remain in good shape far offshore, though, including those off the coast of La Gonâve and the Arcadins Islands, a region activists hope to transform into Haiti's first marine park.
Coral formations there are as colorful and vibrant as in protected waters elsewhere in the Caribbean. But marine life is scarce. Smaller aquarium fish can be found, but these waters are almost completely devoid of stingrays, sharks, sea turtles, barracudas and other species common elsewhere.
"There's almost no fish in the water with you," said Jean Weiner, director of the Fondation pour la Protection de la Biodiversité Marine, or FoProBim.
Roy, a 30-year veteran of diving in Haiti, remembers when marine life was abundant. He also remembers catering to American, German, Swiss and Italian tourists who frequently came to his dive shop at the Kaliko Beach Club to explore the underwater environment.
Roy's business, Pegasus Diving, did brisk business right up to 1991, when turmoil picked up after former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was ousted in a military coup. As security worsened, Haiti's tourism industry was among the first casualties. Club Med left, and many travel agencies followed. Persistent U.S. State Department warnings against travel to Haiti sped the collapse.
From 1997, everything fell apart. That year, Roy said, "was about the last time I had a good time."
Of 800,000 or so tourists who traveled to Haiti last year, almost all of them -- more than 500,000 -- were brought by Royal Caribbean cruise ships to the company's private and heavily guarded Labadee enclave on the north shore.
Elsewhere, beach hotels and dive shops do the bulk of their business with U.N. peacekeepers and aid workers enjoying their downtime, or with better-off Haitians looking for an escape.
Wiener, who has been running the Haitian nonprofit FoProBim for more than 20 years, believes conditions are ripe for a resurgence of tourism.
"We don't have the 20-kilometer-long white sandy beaches that you find in maybe the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Puerto Rico," Weiner said. "But there are plenty of areas which, in terms of scuba diving, coral reef conditions are in very, very good shape."
FoProBim sees particular promise in Haiti's long southern coast. Though damaged, the beaches on the south peninsula are larger and in better shape then those found elsewhere. Conservationists point to the reefs off Île à Vache, in the far southwest, as one of the better examples of Haiti's surviving marine environment.
But the Arcadins Coast, stretching from Port-au-Prince northward to Saint Marc, has the best chance of bouncing back in the short run, conservationists and tourism promoters say.
It is here where most of the larger beach hotels are found, including the former Club Med, redubbed the Indigo and now popular with Brazilian soldiers on leave. A Dominican company is busy repairing this stretch of road, cutting travel time to the capital and airport by half.
And it is here that FoProBim would like the government to establish the nation's first marine protected area, a zone where conservation would be paramount and fishing restricted in an effort to bring biodiversity back.
After years of painstaking assessment and planning, Wiener's work culminated in a draft presidential decree landing on the prime minister's desk last summer. It would have established an Arcadins and La Gonâve coastal marine park, one of eight the organization would like to create.
But government disorder got in the way.
The marine park idea was said to be gaining currency, the closest FoProBim had ever been to seeing it become reality. Then last month, a group of powerful senators voted to oust the prime minister, marking Haiti's fifth change of government in as many years.
Weiner figures he is now back to square one.
Nevertheless, work continues on other fronts to restore and protect Haiti's coasts.
Rodriguez-Leal and a team with the U.N. Environment Programme are working with the government on a comprehensive survey of the coastline to determine which places would benefit most from protections.
In the past few months, their research has focused on the southern coast, with teams traveling from Le Cayes to Jacmel all the way to Anse à Pitres, near the Dominican border.
The Columbia University scholar is also reviewing every environment-related law on the books, in hopes of reviving these and getting the government to fill in legal gaps where they exist. Officials are considering setting up a coast guard to enforce old and new laws.
The government has tapped millions of dollars from the Inter-American Development Bank to finance road construction all along the southern coast, long-term planning for the return of tourism. Work on the road to Saint Marc is almost complete.
Private-sector investment is growing, as well. Royal Caribbean is spending $55 million on enhancements to Labadee, building a giant pier designed to accommodate the world's largest cruise ship. Carnival is said to be in talks with the government on its own leasing arrangement. And officials are scrambling to build an efficient link between the burgeoning cruise ship port of call and the Citadelle near Cap-Haïtien, the largest fortress in the Americas, built in the early 1800s to keep the French out.
Meanwhile, locals insist security concerns have been overblown. Violence has been the main detriment to tourism, but it comes in spurts and is almost always political. Haitians say that in quiet times, their country has much lower violent crime rates than Jamaica or even the Dominican Republic. It is a claim borne out by international crime statistics -- murder rates are much higher in other large Caribbean states, with the exception of Cuba.
Though crime persists, U.N. officials say security is improving, and peacekeepers are now focused on training the national police. Alix Duplessey, a local hotel operator, says he has noticed the improvement: The national police force seems to be operating in a more professional manner, he said. At night, a heavy U.N. presence gives way to Haitian police checkpoints, a clear indication that government authority is gradually returning.
With better security, Haitians are now venturing out more to explore their own country, something previously unheard of. They say tourists should follow if the local population learns to respect and protect the environment.
"You have to teach people to respect certain rules if you want to get into international tourism, and you have to enforce them," Roy said. "Strong environmental protection will help the country, not only my business."
But it may be necessary to have the government first show a stronger commitment cleaning the coasts, a sentiment seemingly shared by most hoteliers and tour operators. Of the 2009-2010 national budget, 0.71 percent is devoted to the environment. Tourism promotion is promised 0.23 percent, though road and infrastructure improvements eat up a much larger share.