Can Haiti’s tourism get its groove back? For Dina Simon of My Haiti Travels (MHT Global, LLC), that is the goal, and she won’t relent until Haiti’s tourism gets its groove back, and gets it back again and again. She’s among many entrepreneurs who are recognizing the need to revitalize Haiti’s tourism industry and are using their business acumen to lend a capable hand in increasing the flow of tourists to the country.
Simon’s firm, which she founded in 2012, was conceptualized with the sole intention of drawing pleasure-seeking tourists and well as luxury travelers to Haiti.
Born in Haiti, the entrepreneur immigrated to the United States when she was nine years old, settling in Brooklyn with her family, before moving on up to Long Island during her high school years. Very much goal-oriented throughout her life, she enrolled in college and earned her Bachelor’s degree, and eventually a Master’s, landing herself a plump position at a New York city agency as a public servant.
The Senior Manager roles she has held really prepared Simon for the mechanics of successfully running her own company. My Haiti Travels is fresh off one of its first excursion to Haiti—the Impact Week Haiti tour—in which Simon guided more than a dozens to breathtaking sites all over Haiti. It was important to her that these tourists saw Haiti in a new light—a positive light, and to make them repeat visitors of Haiti’s destinations. The My Haiti Travels tour took the travelers, ranging from executives to a preteen to hotspots in Port-au-Prince.
Simon goes all out in promoting Haiti as well as her company, hiring Daphne Leroy, of DML Media Group, to vigorously publicize her venture, and her objectives. My Haiti Travels has a strong and consistent presence on social media networks.
Simon has launched a newsletter which has a subscriber count of 600 and counting. When she’s not hard at work brainstorming new ways to usher tourists to Haiti and sell Haiti’s countless charms to them, Simon is busily drawing up proposals for new business partnerships that are designed to propel My Haiti Travels Global ahead in the Haiti traveling game.
Q & A
How would you sum up your company?
My company is a boutique concierge firm that coordinates high-quality travel services to Haiti for leisure and business purposes. Our representatives liaise with hotel and resort establishments, restaurants, and professional tour guides to provide unique experiences tailored to each client’s specific needs, lifestyle, and budget. At My Haiti Travels, we believe the best way to support Haiti is to visit, support local businesses, and give back directly to the people in need through volunteerism. Our goal is for all friends of Haiti to truly experience and enjoy the real Ayiti and all its glory.
How did the idea for your company come about?
The idea for My Haiti Travels was formed after organizing a trip to Haiti for a couple of friends. I could not find a reliable source that provided me information on where to stay, where to eat and what to do; when I did find information it was outdated. I had been to Haiti months prior and knew there were restaurants, bars, resorts, beautiful beaches, spas, and even a hookah bar. I was shocked that those things were not prominently showcased anywhere. Once I was able to secure the right services while in Haiti, my friends and I had the best experience ever.
When I came back to New York, I envisioned creating a service that had a directory of places in Haiti, but with reviews and ratings, similar to Yelp. I wanted people to have information and to help them make informed decisions about where to spend their money. At My Haiti Travels, we believe that if you frequent an establishment and spend your money you should get good service—even in Haiti. Businesses survive because of their customers.
Another vision we had for My Haiti Travels was to make it easy for you to travel to Haiti. A lot of people we spoke to didn’t visit Haiti because they didn’t know where to start, where to stay or where to eat. Haiti is a foreign place to many of us. At My Haiti Travels, you tell us how you want to spend your time and we’ll arrange it. We work with your budget, and build your itinerary on what works for you; after all it is your time.
What sort of challenges do you encounter in running your firm?
The biggest challenge in running my firm is balancing time. I have a full-time day job so there’s never enough time in the day to accomplish everything with my business. Since we’re a start-up, there is not a big budget to hire staff so we rely on volunteers. Without a dedicated staff at the end of the day all the balls drop in my court. Hopefully that will change soon but until then it’s a constant sacrifice—late nights and weekends, less time with family and friends but in the long run it will be worth it.
Now, in terms of running a travel and tourism agency targeted towards a country that’s stigmatized and that’s been portrayed negatively in the media—-how do you handle that?
We have to tell Haiti’s story, past, present and future. We’re all very much aware of Haiti’s challenges. I don’t think any one of us can ever deny them. However, the time has come for us to take a different path and do something new. Our President Michel Martelly has said “Haiti is too rich to be poor,” and he’s right. I’m not just talking about material wealth. I’m talking about things you can’t put a price on.
I also think we as a people need to do a better job about the image we present to others about Haiti. When I meet people and I tell them about Haiti and they see my pictures they are surprised. Most of them tell me their perception of Haiti is from Haitian-Americans who have never visited or it’s been decades since they’ve been to Haiti.
Since the perception of Haiti is one of my biggest challenges, My Haiti Travels constantly educates people by showing the different sides of Haiti. Through our newsletter titled “See Haiti Through Our Eyes,” we try to change perception by focusing on the positive, but not ignoring the struggle. We believe that people should visit Haiti themselves before they form an opinion.
Haiti’s tourism boom peaked in the 40s, then the 1950s, then in the 1970s and 1980s. Do you think it will regain its footing in the tourism industry?
Absolutely, Haiti is currently in the process of a tourism boom. There’s a lot of building, plans for hotels and restaurants, training for the tourism sector, and investment in infrastructure. A lot of people are organizing tours to Haiti. There’s adventure travel, volunteer travel, and there’s a combination of both.
Simon poses with her traveling clients. Photo: Sebastian Narcisse, My Haiti Travels
The first five-star hotel was inaugurated in Haiti about [in December] and there’s encouraging news about the tourism sector. I believe travelers are looking for a different type of vacation as the days where people are confined to a resort are gone. Haiti offers a mixture for people who want adventure, authenticity, and want to discover culture and history.
If you were counseling aspiring entrepreneurs, what would you tell them about your journey?
I would advise them to have a plan and to be flexible. You must be willing to adjust your plan based on internal and external factors. I would advise aspiring entrepreneurs to align themselves with people who share and support their vision. Until you have the support from someone who believes in what you’re doing, it’s hard to get off the ground. You need someone who’s willing to get in the trenches with you, sees your vision and can serve as an advocate for you.
Finally, I would say believe in it. If you don’t believe in it, no one else will. When I talk to people about Haiti, they tell me they see my passion for Haiti. The thing is I’m only telling my story, my experiences. Once you believe in it, it’s easy for someone else to do the same.
Throughout this journey, my proudest moment has been booking two people who have not been back to Haiti in over 30 years. I cannot wait to capture the moment they step off the plane, as they get re-introduced to their country. That’s what My Haiti Travels is about, that’s our vision – “See Haiti Through Our Eyes.”
Any last words?
Kat, thank you for giving me this opportunity. From the beginning of this journey, you have been a major inspiration for me. Thank you for all your tips, and for educating me about Haiti through Kreyolicious Magazine. What you are doing is necessary for us as a people, a culture, and a country. Please continue to educate us on all things Haiti. Thank you to all who believed in the My Haiti Travels vision for Impact Week Haiti 2013, including our media partners BelTiFi, Kiskeacity, Manman Pemba, Haitian-AllStarz, Haiti 1 Stop, HaitiXChange, Radio Soleil, and the Stewardship Report. There are a lot of amazing entrepreneurs and organizations supporting Haiti daily via diverse platforms, so let’s continue to support them. Haiti needs us. We can’t do it alone. We owe it to each other. We owe it to those who came before us. We owe it to Ayiti. L’union fait la force.