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Haiti Overview ©Ken Bosma
One of the first striking features you notice as you descend into Port-au-Prince, are the mountains, hills and deep valleys that make up the Haitian landscape. Haiti shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic, but is distinct in many respects. The overwhelming majority of Haitians are of Afro-Caribbean ancestry, while the Dominican Republic is far more diverse demographically. Haitians have developed a number of unique cultural and linguistic trends, highly influenced by the nation's African heritage - some even say Haiti is really a West African country located in the Caribbean.
Once one of the richest French colonies, known as 'the pearl of the Caribbean', present day Haiti is sadly beset by widespread poverty, crime and civil disturbance. Suffering from numerous dictatorships, deforestation, the plunder of natural resources, and years of unabated corruption, Haiti's citizens generally live hand to mouth. In response to this humanitarian crisis the United Nations has intervened with food aid and a military presence in the beleaguered country.
A catastrophic earthquake struck Haiti 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. Since the devastating earthquake, hospitals, communication systems, and transport facilities remain inadequate even though years have passed.
The fact that dozens of sleek cruise liners still visit a corner of Haiti is, however, a beacon of hope for future tourism. The glittering white liners head out from Miami, to deliver passengers to the cordoned off port of Labadee, adjacent to Haiti's colourful city of Cap-Haitien, on a bay on the northern coast. Here visitors are safe to shop for souvenirs, sample local cuisine and generally enjoy themselves on Haiti's lovely coastline. Cap-Haitien is, arguably, much preferable as a tourist destination to Port-au-Prince, as it suffered little damage in 2010.
Most governments discourage travel to Haiti but intrepid travellers intent on visiting will find surviving natural beauty and many exciting volunteer opportunities in the embattled country. Foreign aid and local ingenuity are slowly but surely improving conditions in Haiti, but unless on a cruise or as part of a volunteer programme exploring the country is difficult. Despite the dismal conditions many Haitians live in, visitors are often surprised at their friendly and hospitable nature, the fruits of fortitude through years of natural and man-made strife.
The international dialling code for Haiti is +509. Communications infrastructure is poor, but a GSM mobile network has recently become available. There are only a few internet cafes in Port-au-Prince, so mobile technology is probably the best form of internet connection.
Emergencies: 118 (Ambulance); 114 (Police).
The two official languages of Haiti are Haitian Creole and French. English is spoken in the capital and at Labadee cruise port, and possibly by some locals in other places as well.
The duty free allowance for goods brought in to Haiti is 1kg of tobacco products, one litre of spirits and other foods under HTG 2,500.
110 volts, 60HZ. The plugs in use are the eastern type with two flat, parallel prongs or with two flat, parallel prongs and a third round pin below (Type A and B).
Haiti enjoys a tropical climate and the weather is generally hot and humid, with sultry, warm nights. Rainfall is quite variable region to region and the rainy season is from April to November. There are often severe storms during the hurricane season, between June and October, when there is the risk of flooding, landslides and hurricanes.
The seasons are not particularly distinct but the best time to travel to Haiti is between November and March to avoid the rainy periods. Between November and March, which is technically winter in Haiti, daytime temperatures range from 70°F to 80°F (23°C to 32°C) and nights are cooler at 60°F to 70°F (15°C to 27°C). In the summer months, it is significantly hotter. Partly due to its problem with deforestation, Haiti can experience extremes of weather, particularly battling with flooding but also occasionally with severe droughts as well.
Haiti is mountainous and weather varies according to altitude, with the hilly regions always a bit cooler than the coast. The mountains can get cold at night so no matter what time of year you explore these areas be sure to have some warm clothes.
All foreign passengers to Haiti require a valid passport, onward or return tickets, and all necessary travel documentation for their next destination. People of Haitian origin do not require a visa. A yellow fever vaccination certificate is required, if arriving in Haiti within six days of leaving or transiting through an infected area. Yellow fever vaccination certificate exemptions apply to those who did not leave the airport/aircraft when transiting through the infected area. Anybody travelling from Guinea, Liberia or Sierra Leone within the last 21 days will be refused entry; those who have travelled to these countries more than 21 days ago must provide medical certification from a medical institution that they are not infected with Ebola. NOTE: It is highly recommended that your passport has at least six months validity remaining after your intended date of departure from your travel destination. Immigration officials often apply different rules to those stated by travel agents and official sources.
US citizens must have a passport that is valid for duration of intended stay in Haiti. A visa is not required for stays of up to three months.
British citizens must have a passport that is valid for six months beyond the duration of intended stay in Haiti. A visa is not required for stays of up to three months.
Canadian citizens must have a passport that is valid for duration of intended stay in Haiti. A visa is not required for stays of up to three months.
Australian citizens must have a passport that is valid for six months beyond period of intended stay in Haiti. A visa is not required for stays of up to three months.
South African citizens must have a passport that is valid for six months beyond period of intended stay in Haiti. A visa is not required for stays of up to three months.
Irish citizens must have a passport that is valid for six months beyond period of intended stay in Haiti. A visa is not required for stays of up to three months.
New Zealand citizens must have a passport that is valid for six months beyond period of intended stay in Haiti. A visa is not required for stays of up to three months.
Malaria and dengue fever occur in Haiti and doctors recommend that travellers take malaria medication and protect themselves as far as possible from mosquito bites with insect repellent and mosquito nets. Chikungunya fever is also common in the region.
A yellow fever vaccination certificate is required for those arriving from an infected country in Africa or the Americas, and hepatitis A and B, typhoid, polio and MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) update vaccinations are recommended. Anybody planning to spend a lot of time outdoors, and at possible risk of animal bites, should consider a rabies vaccination.
Visitors should only drink boiled or bottled water and avoid ice in drinks. It is recommended that street food is avoided but if you do buy from street vendors try to only eat hot food and avoid fruit and vegetables unless washed by yourself.
Medical facilities in Port-au-Prince are of poor quality, and are virtually non-existent elsewhere in the country, so medical insurance with evacuation cover is essential, and it is advisable to bring all required medications from home. If you are travelling with prescribed medications be sure to carry a prescription and note from your doctor detailing what the medication is for and why you need it.
Haiti has a bad reputation for the safety and security of visitors because of a high crime rate and civil unrest, and both the British and US governments advised against all but essential travel to Haiti until recently. Now, both governments have issued warnings about numerous travel risks, with the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office advising against all travel to the slum districts of Port-au-Prince.
Most violent incidents concerning foreigners have occurred in or around the capital city and while kidnapping, armed robbery, gang violence, pick-pocketing and various other criminal acts against foreigners have decreased in recent years, the importance of caution and safety precautions cannot be overemphasised. Kidnapping was a serious problem at one time, with many US tourists held hostage for ransom, and although it happens far less now, it is still a danger outside of Labadee.
Since the 2010 earthquake, there has been little policing, and criminal activities such as looting, robbery, and assault are at their highest recorded levels. Travellers are urged to refrain from walking in the cities without a guide and to exercise extreme caution when using public transport of any kind. Travellers should also be aware that, since the earthquake, there have been warnings issued about cholera outbreaks, and medical infrastructure is particularly poor. Most tourists choose not to venture beyond the safe resort area of Labadee, where the port has been enclosed to protect visitors.
Emergency Phone Number
Emergencies: 118 (Ambulance); 114 (Police).
* For current safety alerts, please visit Foreign travel advice - GOV.UK or Travel.State.Gov
The official currency is the Haitian Gourde (HTG), divided into 100 centimes, but US Dollars and the Dominican Peso are also widely accepted. Credit cards are welcome nearly everywhere, but ATMs are scarce and the few there are in Port au Prince are often out of order. Travellers cheques are difficult to exchange.
Exchange RateNot available.
Embassies of Haiti
Embassy of Haiti, Washington DC, United States: +1 202 332 4090.
Embassy of Haiti, London, United Kingdom: +44 0207 637 8985
Embassy of Haiti, Ottawa, Canada: +1 613 238 1628/1629
Embassy of Trinidad and Tobago, Sydney, Australia (responsible for Haiti): +61 2 9327 6639
Embassy of Haiti in South Africa: +27 012 342 0192; +27 012 432 0980
Foreign Embassies in Haiti
United States Embassy, Port-au-Prince: +509 2229 8000.
British Embassy, Port-au-Prince: + 509 2812 9191
Canadian Embassy, Port-au-Prince: +509 2812 9000
Australian High Commission, Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago (also responsible for Haiti): +1 868 822 5450.
South African High Commission, Kingston, Jamaica (also responsible for Haiti): +1 876 620 4840.
A smile goes a long way in Haiti, and while people might think Haitians are solemn at first glance, most quickly warm up to visitors. Haitians are proud people despite their poor circumstances and appreciate being treated with respect. It is advisable to show willingness to learn a few basic Creole phrases, and to ask permission before taking pictures of locals. In rural areas it is considered indecent for women to have bare legs or shoulders, and modesty is encouraged when it comes to clothing in general.
This being one of the poorest countries in the western hemisphere, and economically depressed, means that few business visitors come to Haiti. If embarking on a business trip to Haiti, business visitors should consider hiring a translator to ensure smooth communication. Business hours are generally from 8am to 4pm.
Hotel bills generally have a tax of 10 percent added, and a service charge of five percent. Restaurant staff in Haiti should be tipped around 10 percent of the bill. Taxi drivers can be given a discretionary tip if they are helpful and efficient. Most Haitians don't tip, but it is customary to tip in tourist locations and all gratuities are graciously accepted.
Public Holidays in Haiti
Although Haiti is bogged down by a history of violence and natural disaster, it is still a beautiful country with a tropical climate, white beaches, lush jungle vegetation, and an interesting history; thousands of cruise passengers enjoy the safe tourist haven of Labadee, and for those brave enough to venture beyond this affluent enclave there are a few wonderful attractions in Haiti.
Labadee definitely tops the list of what to see and do in Haiti but the picturesque resort has come under some fire recently for exploiting the country's natural assets and tourism potential with little benefit to the local community beyond its high fences. For many, however, this little piece of Haitian heaven is a safe and lovely stop-off point and a chance to enjoy the colourful craft markets in the village of Labadee.
Many governments still advise against touristic travel to Port-au-Prince (especially the slum areas of the city) because the capital is unfortunately the epicentre of crime and violence in the country. Fairly close to the sprawling Port-au-Prince is the far smaller port city of Jacmel, a historic and charming place to visit. In Jacmel tourists will find a community struggling to recover from the 2010 earthquake, but also captivating 19th-century architecture, white beaches, and a proud cultural scene which celebrates local music and art. The glorious turquoise pools and waterfalls at Bassin Bleu, close to Jacmel, delight visitors, and the imposing, UNESCO-certified Citadelle Laferrière is an amazing excursion.
Haiti is not an easy country to get around and the infrastructure is poor but there are rewards awaiting the intrepid.
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