Toby Simon is the woman behind Travels With Toby. She’s one of the many entrepreneurs who’ve noted the tourism potential in Haiti, and have dived right in. Call her style…boutique tourism. She searches out small groups and brings them to Jacmel and other less-frequently traveled areas in Haiti. It’s all about making it a unique experience for these travelers, and making a big deal of everything Haiti has to offer.
Kreyolicious: Tell us about yourself and how you came upon Haiti.
My professional work is in health education and public health. My area of expertise is in human sexuality which I’ve taught at numerous colleges and universities. About Twenty-One years ago, my husband was contacted by a board member at the Albert Schweitzer Hospital [medical facility in Haiti]. They were recruiting him to be their CEO. He couldn’t take the position at that time, but said he’d love to volunteer as a pediatrician for a few weeks so the Haitian physicians could take some vacation. It was a year after the latest coup d’etat and things were a bit dicey in Haiti. What else is new! I wanted to go and wasn’t sure what I’d do there. In the end, my expertise and fluency in French turned out to be a huge plus for the community health department of the hospital. And for me, it was the beginning of my love affair with Haiti. I even took daily Kreyol lessons with one of the local boys.
Kreyolicious: Out of all Haiti’s cities, what drew you to Jacmel?
All my Haitian friends recommended I visit Jacmel. They talked up the art scene, the progressive politics, the sea, and the small town charm. My husband and I went on a vacation there and then we were both hooked!
Kreyolicious: What’s the Haiti tourism scene like from your perspective?
I’m always pleasantly surprised when I meet other tourists in Haiti. Last December I met a group from England which was just great. So from my perspective, Haiti needs tourists. Badly. They need people staying in the lovely small hotels in Jacmel and Cap Haitien and PauP AND spending money in local restaurants and in local art shops and galleries. Haiti doesn’t need all inclusive hotels like the DR because the local communities don’t benefit from them. I’ve met slot of the Haitian diaspora who are vacationing in Haiti and they are always very positive about the experience. I’ve been bringing American tourists on my tours and they have loved the experience.
Sharing the Jacmel experience with a group.
Kreyolicious: What do you feel is lacking?
There are some of the typical infrastructure problems. For example, if you could land in Port-au-Prince and then get a small plane to Jacmel, Les Cayes or Port Salut, you could save so much time and avoid the horrendous traffic in Port-au-Prince. Finding local drivers is very easy in Haiti and the hotels can easily set up visitors with drivers. Security and safety are always a concern which is why I use a driver and sometimes a rental car. And we avoid areas that might be unsafe—especially in the evening. There’s not that much lacking as far as I’m concerned: tourists to Haiti are special types of tourists. They’re not looking for deluxe hotels, gazillion amenities and abundant towels in the hotel room. They are looking for authenticity and adventure. They are open-minded about seeing parts of the world that have many assets—and not just problems.
Kreyolicious: What do you feel is being done right?
I love the appreciation from every Haitian I’ve encountered when I’ve told them about Travels With Toby in Haiti. Haiti is open for business, and eager to have it. Being totally “herself” is what people love about the country.
Kreyolicious: For those who’ve never heard of Haiti or those who have heard not too positive things…what’s it like recruiting them?
So far, I haven’t recruited anyone who’s reluctant to come. People ask about safety issues and even they know that parts of Brooklyn are a lot more dangerous than Haiti! People usually have questions about the food, what to do about the water, what kinds of places we will visit.
Kreyolicious: What has the reaction been from the tourists you have brought into Haiti so far?
They have loved the experience! I bill or promote the trip as eco/educational. Since I’ve been working and visiting Haiti for the past Twenty-One years, I have lots of contacts with wonderful organizations that are doing exemplary, sustainable and vital work. We visit these places and it’s been a hugely popular aspect of the trips. We do not do any service work since I feel one of Haiti’s big problem is that there are way too many Non-governmental agencies in Haiti. The planes are full of people with rescue fantasies and missionary groups. These visitors do nothing for the tourism industry. They don’t truly understand sustainability, and it’s not clear to me if they want to.
One of the prerequisites prior to a TWT Tour is to do some reading on Haiti and viewing some videos about the country. However, my experience from Twenty-One years ago and that of all my TWT travelers, has been that even if you’ve done some reading, you are never truly prepared for what you’ll see. The grinding poverty is pretty overwhelming and Americans rarely are exposed to this in our country. Part of why my tours include visits to sustainable NGOs and other organizations is to balance the feeling overwhelmed by the sights in the streets with projects that are actually hopeful, impactful and efficacious.
I also include readings on sustainable development. A huge problem in Haiti, also known as The Republic of 10,000 NGOs, is the vast number of these groups in the country. There’s a lack of communication among many of them, little coordination, and way too much unaccounted money. In my opinion, some of the missionary groups may be the worst offenders. Many are so focused on orphanages and don’t want to acknowledge that orphanages represent colossal failure of the system. They think that holding and kissing Haitian orphans will be impactful to the child. Or that building new orphanages is the solution. It’s frustrating to me and I think I owe it to people coming on my trips to get as good an understanding of sustainability as possible, to see the ways that some “do-gooders” aren’t really effective. The tourism industry could be the ticket to get Haiti moving in the right direction, just as it’s done in the Dominican Republic. Haiti doesn’t need American visitors painting schools, dispensing toothbrushes or building more churches. Haitians need jobs, infrastructure, a working and transparent government among other things.
I’m on the boards of two wonderful Haitian organizations: the YWCA Haiti and GOALS Haiti. My tours usually involve visits to these groups.
Above: One of the beaches that Travel With Toby takes her Haiti tourism clients.
Kreyolicious: You have referred to your Haiti tourism activities as informal. Moving forward, do you see yourself getting more corporate?
I think the idea of bringing corporate types to Haiti is an excellent one. I’ve made some attempts to bring high level university officials to Haiti, with no success. I would love to work with corporations!
[All photos courtesy of Travels with Toby]