Entrepreneurs like Ann-Sophie Ovile wants to make Haiti’s days at the bottom of world vacations list a thing of the past. To that end, she’s founded Mennenm La Tours, a travel and tourism company that creates custom packages with the discriminating tourist in mind. But there must be challenges in running such a company. For, as some pundits have been quick to point out, Haiti’s past as a hot tourism spot was decades ago.
But things have been turning upwards for Haiti tourism, and Ann-Sophie Ovile finds herself among the players flipping the cards, and maneuvering the domino cubes to increase visitors to Haiti.
Read on as the travel entrepreneur discusses the origin of her Haiti tourism company, her offerings, and Haiti’s future as a tourism spot.
Kreyolicious: What made you start Mennenm La Tours?
From a young age, I had a passion for entrepreneurship. It has always been something that came to me naturally. I used to bring back seashells from the beach and sell them at school. At the time, I lived in Haiti and every summer, I used to travel for vacation. But then, in 2010, after the earthquake, I left Haiti. From this moment, my parents decided that, in the summer, my sister and I would come to Haiti and discover our own land. This is when I really fell in love with Haiti. I discovered so many places that I did not know existed. I fell deeply in love with the countryside’s simplicity, with the people, the little things that make our culture. And I started telling myself: “Haiti is too rich to be poor. What can I do to bring a change?”
Above: Mennem La tourists participating in a segment of an eco tour.
This is when I started thinking. I did not have any particular idea. I just had this passion in my heart and I knew that I could create something out of it! I am very passionate, and it is probably what made me go for it. Then tourism started taking a bigger proportion in Haiti thanks to the ex-minister of tourism Stephanie Villedrouin and it inspired me even more. I wanted to take tourism to another level without ignoring our rich cultural baggage. I wanted the local communities to benefit from it. I wanted people to come to Haiti and see more than a beautiful beach. I wanted them to discover and to learn. And through brainstorming, traveling inside the country, meeting local communities, motivation and prayer, all of the pieces came together. They still are…I am learning as I am evolving in this business.
Now Mennen’m La is launched and evolving. Our mission is to introduce social and sustainable tourism through excursion where the tourists get to stay at local’s homes or camping in their villages. Plus, we make sure that they benefit from the activity by offering their art classes and other activities in our packages. We hire them as cooks, fishermen and all other jobs we might need for the tours.
Kreyolicious: Was your company name a no-brainer?
Mennen’m La means “Take Me There” in Creole, which is the name of my Instagram travel page and blog that I started in 2013. Through them, I share my travel pictures and stories around the world. So when I decided to launch the business, it came naturally!
Kreyolicious: What is the Haiti tourism scene like right now?
There is still a lot to be done. However, there is a movement taking place and we can all feel it! On one hand, because of the publicity that has been made through the ex-minister of tourism many people have developed the desire to come to Haiti and the numbers don’t lie. In 2014, Haiti received a total of 465,174 stay-over visitors for the year, up 10.8 % t from the previous year, according to the Caribbean Journal. This is not something that can be ignored. Also many expats living here in Haiti, are traveling through the country to discover more of Haiti. Most of the time, these people do not find enough activities or support as tourists because this sector is still so new in [modern-times] Haiti…But we are getting there step by step. I just wish more people saw the importance of this industry.
Above: Musicians with hand-made instruments preparing a performance for Mennem La customers.
Kreyolicious: What is a typical Mennen’m La tourist like?
Adventurous! Mennen’m La is a completely adventurous, out of the ordinary experience. I mean…we sleep under tents, learn how to cook with locals—and so much more. The tourists need to keep an open mind and be ready to rediscover Haiti. We get customers of all ages and all nationalities and I love it!
Kreyolicious: What’s it like running a Haiti tourism business?
Challenging of course. There are not enough tourists yet, the economy is low which makes it hard to find many people who can afford these kinds of activities. Working with locals is hard as they are not used to receiving people and working in the tourism industry. They do not have bathrooms so I have to invest in toilets. I have to train them and there is so much workload that is under-estimated.
Kreyolicious: You have four custom tours. Tell us about them. Which ones are most popular?
I offer the beach bum, historical, the artsy and the eco tour. The names speak for themselves. The beach bum is for the beach lovers, the eco tour is more about cave discoveries, waterfalls, reforestation and more. The historical is more about ruins, historical sites and fortresses. The Artsy tour is for the art lovers. When I think artsy, I think Jacmel, art classes, paintings—and all of that good stuff. But besides those, I also plan customized tours for clients who wish to go on an excursion with their own groups.
Kreyolicious: Anything in your background that makes running your company easy?
My drive I would say. Because I am passionate about my work, even the toughest moments are worth it. My love for Haiti and my desire to see things get better. My studies in international business—and most importantly—the support I get from my family. They are my best volunteers and supporters.
Kreyolicious: What would you say to a prospective Haiti tourism client?
That Haiti is worth it. That there is a lot that needs to be done but so much to discover! And of course I would tell him to book a tour with Mennen’m La.
[All photos by Verdy Verna. Main photo furnished by subject.]