Despite sharing an island, comparing the Dominican Republic and Haiti is a slippery slope. Like most neighbors, the two nations have experienced moments of tranquility, moments of teamwork, and moments of tension.
Culturally and economically dissimilar, the two interdependent countries are divided by more than a politically-imposed border. While the U.N. ranks the Dominican Republic 101st in its Human Development Index — towards the bottom of the “high human development” category — Haiti comes in 163rd out of 188 nations, firmly in the “low human development” segment between Togo and Rwanda.
Despite differences in development indicators, both nations struggle, albeit on very different scales. In both, it is quite easy to find hunger, and simple to spot poverty. A key difference is that while these challenges are impossible to ignore in Haiti, they are often-hidden behind the Dominican Republic’s high resort walls.
International resort developers, cruise lines, and the Dominican government have worked hard to build a brand on beautiful beaches, fruity cocktails, all-inclusive resorts, and impossibly warm water. And for the many tourists who eschew the resorts of Punta Cana or Bayahibe for the more local flair of the Dominican’s north coast, there is kite surfing, waterfront timeshares, and the red light district in Sosúa.
Whatever the predilection, marketing teams have ensured that the Dominican Republic is synonymous with paradise; not food insecurity, towns without access to electricity or proper sanitation, or any of the 4,000 homes damaged, or 20,000 people displaced, by two weeks of continuous heavy rainfall this past November.
Haiti, on the other hand, has been the subject of a very different sort of marketing experiment, although the desired outcome is surprisingly similar. While resorts and trip providers have been working to make the Dominican Republic look good to attract travelers’ dollars, nonprofits and aid organizations across the border have the peculiar task of marketing poverty to potential donors.
“In Haiti, nonprofits and aid organizations have the peculiar task of marketing poverty to potential donors.”
Both nations have a tourism sector, and both have a significant nonprofit presence, but there is a clear divide in how the nations are portrayed to the Western world. Whereas the Dominican Republic is most often shown as an idyllic retreat, and poverty problems are pushed under the rug, Haiti is, at its worst, advertised as hopeless; the nation’s beauty and resilience used for fundraising purposes, rather than celebrated as aspects of its potential as a nation and destination.
This selective marketing is neither accurate nor fair, but it does do its job. Nonprofit organizations working in Haiti continue to attract donations, with the Red Cross alone raising US$488m for Haiti as of June 2015, despite being routinely criticized for their work in the country.
Only a short drive away, the Dominican Republic has cemented itself at the top of the Caribbean tourism pyramid. Its plethora of foreign and domestically-owned properties attract millions of tourists, and rake in billions of dollars each year. When a natural disaster hits Haiti, it is, however macabre, something that can be and has often been capitalized on for fundraising purposes. In the Dominican Republic, it is a public relations nightmare for resort marketing teams, for whom a rise in Zika infections, or news of military helicopters flying aid into stranded villages, could possibly threaten spring break trip sales.
“No nation is completely drained of hope, no resort town is a perfect paradise, and the act of selectively marketing a country, be it towards rebuilding houses or selling timeshares, risks undermining the potential of its people.”
So when tens of thousands people are put in danger by severe flooding, several homes are destroyed, and the already-rough dirt roads that lace the Dominican’s north coast are washed out, it may very well be that the Dominican tourism industry — which accounted for 16.3% of the nation’s GDP in 2015 — is well incentivized to keep it under wraps. Across the border, aside from a small but promising tourism sector, disaster seems almost a staple in the narratives spoken on Haiti.
Yet, the Dominican brand does not just exclude natural disasters. After authorities in Santo Domingo initiated a mass deportation of Haitians and people of Haitian descent in 2015, calls for an international tourism boycott triggered fearful reactions from industry leaders and government officials alike. Led by well-known Dominican figures, like Dominican-American writer Junot Diaz, the boycott was a dent in the country’s image. And while cries for a boycott did not appear to have any lasting effect, the Dominican government has since done better at keeping deportation efforts under wraps, perhaps aiding the public in forgetting about the unneighborly snafu.
Sometimes close allies, other times a little more-than-disgruntled with each other, the Dominican Republic and Haiti have found themselves on opposite sides of a marketing trap.
Still, conventional, non-volunteer-centric tourism does exist in Haiti. Much of the sector comprises long-time holdouts from a tourism boom Haiti experienced in the 1970’s, but some new developments have opened and many are in progress. Altogether, the country has a strong future as a tourism destination if nonprofit marketing teams loosen up the reins and allow it to be seen as a place not just full of poverty, but also full of true potential with the right investments.
Similarly, poverty and injustice do exist in the Dominican Republic, and natural disasters do occur. Seeing beyond the beautiful facades that resorts, trip providers, and the Dominican government have constructed to sell it as a seaside playground may very well prove to be imperative to the Dominican people’s continued economic progress and long-term success.
One nation fetishized for its apparent struggles and the other for its self-described successes, Haiti and the Dominican Republic are illustrative of two sides of the same coin. In neither situation are they being represented or treated as the complex and diverse countries that they are, and, in both cases, their most publicized personas have done a disservice to their most vulnerable citizens.
No nation is completely drained of hope, no resort town is a perfect paradise, and the act of selectively marketing a country, be it towards rebuilding houses or selling timeshares, risks undermining the potential of its people.