For decades, the mostly dirt-poor residents of the small island of Ile-a-Vache off Haiti’s south coast lived in anonymity, virtually ignored by the government and visited only by the most adventurous backpackers and yachters.
Then, in 2012, helicopters started dropping off big shots: Haitian President Michel Martelly, former US president Bill Clinton, ad agency models and photographers, tourism executives, and the likes of Madonna and Sean Penn.
Then last year came the surprise: The government claimed the 44.1km2 former pirate lair as “a public utility,” potentially stripping the isle’s 14,000 residents of their land to develop a tourist resort.
“The local population was never consulted. It was a terrible shock,” said Jerome Genest, a community leader and member of the Organization of Ile-a-Vache Farmers (KOPI), which is fighting the project along with several other groups.
The Haitian government is now promoting Ile-a-Vache as an ecotourism project, key to its efforts to put the impoverished nation back on the Caribbean tourism map.
Fifty years ago, before it was swept by political turmoil, an HIV/AIDS epidemic and the 2010 earthquake, Haiti was a popular destination for the likes of Mick Jagger and Graham Greene, as well as the Clintons, who honeymooned there.
In the interim it became a pariah for pleasure seekers, standing by enviously as the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and Puerto Rico cornered the US$28 billion Caribbean tourism market.
The government’s vision for Ile-a-Vache is part of a larger master plan for the south coast.
Ile-a-Vache residents say they learned of the US$250 million project when it appeared on the Haitian Ministry of Tourism Web site last year. The plan includes 1,500 hotel rooms, villa resorts, another international airport and golf course.
Government officials have since sought to allay the fears of residents, who are mostly fisherman and farmers. Only 5 percent of their homes — about 100 to 120 houses out of 2,000 — will be expropriated to make way for the project, Haitian Minister of Tourism Stephanie Villedrouin told reporters.
Some of the island’s pristine, nearly uninhabited beaches have been chosen for resort development and Villedrouin said that beach-front land that was not being used could also be seized.
“We need it to develop hotels and create jobs. It’s not like we are taking the whole island to build the hotels,” she said.
KOPI sees a contradiction between the sweep of the public utility claim and the ministry’s assertion that expropriations will be limited. Villedrouin said the decree was being revised to include a registry only of land inside the development area.
The government says it is seeking investors to put up US$200 million for the resorts and has already attracted interest.
“Haiti has unbelievable potential,” said Alex Zozaya, chief executive officer at Apple Leisure Group, a Caribbean tour operator and hotel investor.
He cited the value of its proximity to the US, saying: “It’s like the Seychelles without the jet lag” and that several major hotel brands have shown “very serious interest.”
Some land currently used for cattle grazing and growing crops will also be acquired for the plan.
Sourel Bito, 55, a father of nine children, said that one day, a local official planted a stick in the ground outside his house near the airport site where he grows potatoes and keeps two cows and two goats.