ÎLE-À-VACHE, Haiti (Reuters) – For decades the mostly dirt-poor residents of the small island of Île-à-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: Haiti’s president, Michel Martelly, Bill Clinton, ad agency models and photographers, tourism executives. Madonna and Sean Penn were spotted in November.
Last year came the surprise: the government claimed the 17.3-square-mile former pirate lair as “a public utility,” potentially stripping the 14,000 residents of their land to develop a high-end tourist resort.
“The local population was never consulted.
It was a terrible shock,” said Jerome Genest, a local community leader and member of the Organization of Île-à-Vache Farmers (KOPI), which is fighting the project along with several other groups.
The Haitian government is now promoting Île-à-Vache as an ecotourism project, key to its efforts to put impoverished Haiti back on the Caribbean tourism map.
Fifty years ago, before the country was swept by political turmoil, an HIV-Aids epidemic and the 2010 earthquake, Haiti was a popular destination for the likes of rock singer Mick Jagger and writer Graham Greene, as well as Bill and Hillary, 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 $28 billion Caribbean tourism market.
The government’s vision for Île-à-Vache is part of a larger master plan for the south coast including Côtes-de-Fer, a two-mile stretch of beach on the mainland, including 8,000 hotel rooms, a golf course, and an international airport.
Islanders say they first learned of the $250 million project when it appeared on the website of the Tourism Ministry last year. That 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, mostly fisherman and farmers. Only 5 per cent of their homes – about 100 to 120 houses out of 2,000 – will be expropriated to make way for the project, Haiti’s tourism minister, Stephanie Villedrouin, told Reuters.
Some of the island’s pristine, nearly uninhabited beaches have been chosen for resort development. The minister said 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 $200 million for the resorts and has attracted interest from several potential investors.
“Haiti has unbelievable potential,” said Alex Zozaya, chief executive officer at Apple Leisure Group, a major Caribbean tour operator and hotel investor based in Philadelphia, who visited the south coast last month. He cited the value of the country’s proximity to the United States. “It’s like the Seychelles without the jet lag,” he added, saying several major hotel brands have shown “very serious interest.”
Some land used for cattle grazing and growing crops will also be acquired, including a patch of hillside on the south coast of the island slated to become a golf course surrounded by vacation villas.
Sourel Bito, 55, a father of nine children, said 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.