Haitians all over are betting that Haiti’s tourism will rise again, and those whom are part of the Haitian community in Canada are no exception. Richenor Chery and Alex Jean-Philippe Jean-Louis, whom are both based in Montreal, are the founders of Zoom Sur Haiti, a company that reaches out to the French and English speaking population of Canada and promote Haiti to them as their next vacation and excursion spot.
The pair’s aggressive campaign is already in full motion. Zoom Sur Haiti has offered three-day and five-day excursions in Haiti that includes stops in lesser known places like Aquin, Port Salut and Port Morgan. They are proud to be promoting a different Haiti to the Canadian market and they themselves are rediscovering Haiti in their own way.
Chery was born in Port-au-Prince and moved to Canada as a teenager in the mid-1990s. Jean-Louis arrived in Canada— after graduating high school in Haiti in the early 2000s—to attend college and eventually graduated with an engineering degree from a university in Montreal. He and Chery met in Montreal while serving as youth leaders in their church and became fast friends. Later, they decided to team up as business partners.
They founded Zoom Sur Haiti in February of 2011 under the umbrella of their main company Visinov International, and launched the company’s website in November of that same year. The team is pounding the pavement hard to get the word out on Haiti. Not content to sit behind their computers, they attend events in Canada and the United States to propel their goals for Haiti’s tourism. They were participants at an edition of the Haitian Diaspora Socio-Economic Summit in Atlanta, and took part in Journée de la Diaspora à Montréal (Diaspora Cultural Day in Montreal). The pair is regularly interviewed by major media outlets in Canada, such as MAtv and Radio-Canada.
While Canadians are their primary target, thanks to their highly-trafficked website, Chery and Jean-Louis are also drawing interest from internet users seeking information about Haiti. Their videos are especially drawing interest. The website has visitors from far-off places as Yemen, Uzbekistan, Suriname, Pakistan, Nepal, Cambodia, Guinea, Tanzania, Angola. So far, the Zoom Sur Haiti newsletter has 5,000 subscribers and Zoom Sur Haiti has a combined fan count of 30,000 on the social media platforms Twitter and Facebook.
Chery (left) and Jean-Louis (right) hang out in Ile-a-Vache, Haiti with a local (center).
Q & A
What made you start Zoom Sur Haiti?
JEAN-LOUIS: Many reasons. To utilize my skills for Haiti. Every Haitian should—we have a duty to the country. To promote my country. It is up to us to impose to the world [how we would like them to see Haiti] just like other people [in places] like Jamaica, Mexico and the Dominican Republic would impose their perception [to counteract what] others hold of them. To provide a clear alternative for people who wish to visit Haiti. [To] ease [the process of] planning a trip to Haiti.
CHERY: This comes from the desire to do something for Haiti to move forward, because I was born in this country, then this is something that I owe it. It comes from my pride as a Haitian who no longer wants to keep for himself the wonders that his country contain. He wants to share it with the world. And it also comes from the fact that I’m tired of seeing how people denigrate my country showing the negative things about it and me [retaliating] only by talking, so I decided to take some action by allowing people to see other in Haiti through Zoom Sur Haiti.
Zoom Sur Haiti. Zooming in on Haiti. How did that name come about?
CHERY: Considering that the people’s main focus on Haiti is aimed towards Port-au-Prince and its main news such as insecurity, poverty and political instability, we wanted to show to the world that there’s much more about this great country. Therefore, we decided to expose the beautiful places in Haiti using amazing images and videos which will push people to “zoom” on these nice spots. This means that we are showing people that Haiti is more than what they show on TV.
JEAN-LOUIS: Zoom Sur Haiti means zoom in on the hidden riches of Haiti. Videography is equivalent to Zoom. After the earthquake, my friend Richenord and I decided to support sustainable Haiti. Disappointed with the image we see in Haiti in all media, but especially disappointed that they keep reducing Haiti to Cité Soleil and Belair, we decided to show something other than Port-au-Prince, which represents only 0.12% of Haiti. We zoom also to show the world that there are wonders to visit in 99.8% of Haiti that does not show.
On in ordinary day in the life of Zoom, what goes on?
CHERY: We love to say that we’re zooming. Every day, we are encouraging people to visit our website through our social networks—Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn. We also spend a lot of time on the website management, which means, video updates, news of the country, addition of new pictures and researching on what could be interesting for our viewers to follow and of course, business management. That is what we call zooming.
JEAN-LOUIS: We do a lot of things. Zoom Sur Haiti is divided into teams and each with a clear responsibility and goals. Because we develop Zoom outside of our professional lives. We exchange many emails. During evenings and weekends, we work a lot. We always look forward to our days off—as a long vacation weekend—so that we can focus full-time on Zoom.
Your company is based in Canada. Do you think that has helped your mission?
CHERY: Based on the fact that we are promoting Haiti through the internet, our geographical location does not really impact our mission. However, it’d better for us to be directly onsite—Haiti—because we would be more efficient and faster in providing information to our viewers, just by saving the travel time.
JEAN-LOUIS: Yes and no. Yes, because being outside of Haiti, we can keep our critical thinking, analyzing more objectively the progress in tourism, and see the opportunity of improvements. We are also in a better position to compare our promotional strategy with other countries, and to provide an approach that includes both, the Haitian identity but also what the international research in terms of tourist experience. No, because traveling to Haiti is extremely expensive. Unfortunately, we do not have the choice to return to renew our audiovisual resources, validate certain information, and cover cultural events such as the national Carnival.
What has the response to your tourism effort work been so far?
CHERY: We have had amazing responses from international viewers, who have traveled all the way to Haiti, in order to see the great spots that we expose through our website and social network, many testimonials were posted on our Facebook wall, some viewers also twitted about it we are very pleased to see that much positive response from these great people. It is really encouraging to see how react by visiting the website and how they testify to the experience they have lived by visiting the site, the thanks, the messages we’re receiving from people congratulate us for having taken such an initiative, we go straight to the heart. One of the things that show the success of our work is the people who decide to visit beautiful places in Haiti because of Zoom Sur Haiti.
JEAN-LOUIS: It is extremely positive. We are proud that we have achieved a work of education is to ensure that Haitians regain confidence in themselves, their country. When you hear statements like “Zoom, I spend forty-five minutes a day on your site,” or “Zoom, thanks to you, I dared to return to Haiti to visit Ile-a-Vache,” we all have reason to be proud. In addition, we believe we have sufficiently stirred the interest of Haitians. Now the number of tour operators and young people who want to invest in the Haitian tourism sector exploded.
The Zoom Sur Haiti team. Richenord Chery is the one in the blue shirt; Alex Jean-Philippe Jean-Louis is sporting the purple shirt.
What do you feel are the most under promoted parts of Haiti?
JEAN-LOUIS PHILIPPE: The true Haitian identity is not promoted: fashion, natural resources, art, gastronomy especially. We often [solely] show our beaches and beautiful hotels.
CHERY: According to what we’ve seen through general medias, the whole country`s wealth is under-promoted. To be more specific, we see more negative parts than positive ones while there is much more to know about this country, such as, music, gastronomy, painting, fashion and many more. We like to think that we are doing our part towards promoting these neglected fields.
In running Zooming Sur Haiti, what challenges do you come across?
JEAN-LOUIS: Our work allows us to be between supply and demand, and to connect them. Strangely, our biggest challenge is not to convince consumers of tourism products that Haiti offers, but rather to convince the actors of the tourism sector to join their forces to meet the demand.
CHERY: Although Zoom Sur Haiti has reached the great popularity that we had hoped, the challenges we face is to work with tourism [major players] to be able to [position] Zoom Sur Haiti as an agent that will contribute to driving tourism to Haiti.
What’s the perception of Canadian-Haitians in terms where Haiti is concerned?
CHERY: Just like us, they think that Haiti is beautiful and there’s more to know about her. But because of the mismanagement on every level in this country, they end up thinking that there’s no more hope.
JEAN-LOUIS: Canadian-Haitians have lost confidence in their country; they are tired of hoping for a few seconds and get discouraged immediately after. This is why they strongly support our initiative, because it allows them to stay positive and believe in something that will not change overnight: the wealth of Haiti.
In terms of non-Haitians living in Canada, what is their perception of Haiti?
CHERY: For them, Haiti is a very unlucky country that needs a lot of help in term of financial supports and stability.
JEAN-LOUIS: Friends of Haiti—this is the name we give them—express pity for us. They say we are unlucky. Many of them want to bring their expertise to Haiti. In terms of tourism strategy, we have everything to gain if we [court] the Canadian customer.
The Zoom Sur Haiti during a break at a promotional event.
What do you think can be done to draw their attention to Haiti as a tourism destination? There’s that deal with Transat. But what else can be done to reach out to them?
CHERY: In the past, Haiti used to be called the Pearl of the Caribbean, and there was much reason for that, therefore, our goal is to show every one that those reasons still exist. Zoom sur Haiti is a reference for those people to go look at and educate themselves. As a result, they’ll get a better idea of what the country used to be and still is. To us, it`s the best way to draw their attention to Haiti as a tourism destination.
JEAN-LOUIS: If we look in the tourism sector only, we will have to work on these following points: Showing them clearly that we are developing infrastructure—airport, lodging and so on—outside of Port-au-Prince. Because what they see in pictures are not in Port-au-Prince. Ease the living people who have already chosen Haiti as their next destination. This will create a start and if they see that others return to Haiti without any problem, they can too. Expose the riches of Haiti to more people.
When one reads tourism pamphlets from the 1950s and up to the mid-1980s, it’s apparent that Haiti sustained its popularity among tourists. Do you think that it can be on that level again?
CHERY: Absolutely! As mentioned above, Haiti remained the Pearl of the Caribbean, not only because of her beautiful beaches, but also because her cultural wealth. For many reasons, Haiti has lost its popularity and our challenge is to bring Haiti back on that level again, which we believe will happen sooner than people think.
JEAN-LOUIS: We have the ability to become the best tourist destination in the Caribbean, just as [soon as] we agree to unite and synchronize our forces.