What makes Haiti a unique country to travel to?
Haiti covers the western third of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola. The capital city is Port-au-Prince. The January 12, 2010, earthquake significantly damaged key infrastructure and reduced the capacity of Haiti’s medical facilities. While slowly improving, Haiti’s infrastructure remains in poor condition, unable to support normal activity, much less crisis situations While the Embassy's ability to provide emergency consular services has improved since the earthquake, it remains limited. The Haitian National Police (HNP), with assistance from the UN Stabilization Force for Haiti (MINUSTAH), is responsible for keeping the peace in Haiti and rendering assistance during times of civil unrest. The level of violent crime in Port-au-Prince, including murder and kidnapping, remains a concern and Haiti is considered a ‘critical threat’ post for crime.
Crimes such as kidnappings, death threats, murders, armed robberies, home break-ins and car-jacking are not uncommon in Haiti. Generally, these crimes are committed by Haitians against other Haitians, but foreigners and U.S. citizens have been victimized. The incidence of kidnapping in Haiti has diminished from its peak in 2006 when 60 U.S. citizens were reported kidnapped. In 2012 there were nine reported kidnappings of U.S. citizens, two homicides, seventeen aggravated assaults, one sexual assault, and 115 reported robberies. In recent years, some U.S. citizens who were kidnapped reported being beaten and/or raped by their hostage takers. Kidnapping remains the most critical security concern, and kidnappers have not been averse to targeting children in the past.
It is important to exercise a high degree of caution throughout the country. Keep valuables well hidden, ensure possessions are not left in parked vehicles, use private transportation, alternate your travel routes, and keep doors and windows in homes and vehicles closed and locked. You should avoid all night-time travel due to poor road conditions and increased criminal activity after dark. Remain alert for suspicious onlookers when entering and exiting banks, as criminals often watch and subsequently attack bank customers. Withdrawals of large amounts of cash should be avoided.
Criminal perpetrators often operate in groups of two to four individuals, and may occasionally be confrontational and gratuitously violent. Criminals sometimes will seriously injure or kill those who resist their attempts to commit crime. In robberies or home invasions, it is not uncommon for the assailants to beat or shoot the victim in order to limit the victim's ability to resist. If an armed individual demands the surrender of a vehicle or other valuables, we recommend that you comply. This recommendation also applies in the event of a kidnapping. Exercise caution at all times and review basic personal security procedures frequently.
Avoid using public transportation, including "tap-taps" (private transportation used for commercial purposes). All public transportation is prohibited for Embassy personnel due to the safety and security risks associated with its use. When arriving to Haiti by air, arrange for someone you know to meet you at the airport.
You should decline all requests to carry items for others to or from Haiti. Traffickers of illegal drugs have duped unsuspecting travelers into helping transport narcotics aboard commercial airlines.
Avoid certain high-crime zones in the Port-au-Prince area, including Croix-des-Bouquets, Carrefour, Martissant, the port road (Boulevard La Saline), urban route Nationale #1, route Nationale #9, the airport road (Boulevard Toussaint L'Ouverture) and its adjoining connectors to the New ("American") Road via Route Nationale #1 (which should also be avoided). This latter area in particular has been the scene of numerous robberies, car-jackings, and murders. Embassy employees are prohibited from entering Cite Soleil and La Saline and their surrounding environs due to significant criminal activity. Neighborhoods in Port-au-Prince once considered relatively safe, such as the Delmas road area, Petionville, and Vivy Mitchel have been the scenes of an increasing number of violent crimes.
Cameras and video cameras should only be used with the permission of the subjects; violent incidents have followed unwelcome photography. Avoid photography/videography in high-crime areas.
Holiday periods, especially Christmas and Carnival, often bring a significant increase in criminal activity. Haiti's Carnival season is marked by street celebrations in the days leading up to Ash Wednesday. In recent years, Carnival has been accompanied by civil disturbances, altercations and severe traffic disruptions. People attending Carnival events or simply caught in the resulting celebrations have been injured and killed. Random stabbings during Carnival season have also occurred. Roving musical bands called “rah-rahs” operate during the period from New Year's Day through Carnival. Being caught in a rah-rah event may begin as an enjoyable experience, but the potential for injury and the destruction of property is high. A mob mentality can develop unexpectedly leaving people and cars engulfed and at risk. During Carnival, rah-rahs continuously form without warning; some rah-rahs have identified themselves with political entities, lending further potential for violence.
While the size of the Haitian National Police (HNP) is slowly increasing and its capabilities improving, it is still understaffed and under-equipped. As a result, it is unable to respond to all calls for assistance. There are continued allegations of police complicity in criminal activity. The response and enforcement capabilities of the HNP and the weakness of the judiciary often frustrate victims of crime in Haiti. In the past, U.S. citizens involved in business and property disputes in Haiti have been arrested and detained without charge and have been released only after intervention at high levels of the Haitian government.
Do not buy counterfeit and pirated goods, even if they are widely available. Not only are pirated goods illegal in the United States, if you purchase them you may be also breaking local law.
While you are traveling in Haiti, you are subject to its laws. Foreign laws and legal systems can be vastly different than our own. In some places you may be taken in for questioning if you don’t have your passport with you. In some places, it is illegal to take pictures of certain buildings. In some places driving under the influence could land you immediately in jail. These criminal penalties will vary from country to country. There are also some things that might be legal in the country you visit, but still illegal in the United States, and you can be prosecuted under U.S. law if you buy pirated goods. Engaging in sexual conduct with children or using or disseminating child pornography in a foreign country is a crime prosecutable in the United States. If you break local laws in Haiti, your U.S. passport won’t help you avoid arrest or prosecution. It’s very important to know what’s legal and what’s not where you are going.
Persons violating Haiti's laws, even unknowingly, may be expelled, arrested or imprisoned. Penalties for possession, use, or trafficking in illegal drugs in Haiti are severe, and convicted offenders can expect long jail sentences and heavy fines. The judicial process in Haiti can be extremely slow; progress is often dependent on considerations not related to the specific case, including personal disputes. Detainees have waited months or years for their cases to be heard before a judge or to have legal decisions acted upon by the authorities. Bond is not usually available to those arrested for serious crimes with the result that often suspects remain in custody for many months before formal indictment. Judges have more or less unfettered freedom to detain individuals for prolonged periods of time without the possibility of release or sanctions.
Based on the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, bilateral agreements with certain countries, and customary international law, if you are arrested in Haiti, you have the option to request that the police, prison officials, or other authorities alert the U.S. Embassy of your arrest, and to have communications from you forwarded to the U.S. Embassy.
Medical Facilities and Health Information
Medical facilities in Haiti are scarce and for the most part sub-standard. Outside of the capital standards are often even lower than in Port-au-Prince. Medical care in Port-au-Prince is limited, and the level of community sanitation is extremely low. Life-threatening emergencies often require evacuation by air ambulance at the patient's expense. Doctors and hospitals often expect immediate cash payment in advance for health services. In the event of a medical emergency requiring evacuation, a list of air ambulance or charter flight services is available at the ACS web site.
Incidents of cholera have declined significantly since a major outbreak in 2010 and travelers are generally not at high risk; however, cholera persists in many areas of Haiti. Prior to travel, U.S. citizens should obtain information about cholera and other health-related issues by visiting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.
Information on vaccinations and other health precautions, such as safe food and water precautions, malaria and insect bite protection, may be obtained from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s hotline for international travelers at 1-877-FYI-TRIP (1-877-394-8747) or via the CDC web site.
Safety and Security
While hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens safely visit Haiti every year, the Department of State strongly urges U.S. citizens to consider carefully all travel to Haiti. Travel fully supported by organizations with solid infrastructure, evacuation options, and medical support systems in place is recommended.
If you intend to work for an organization involved in humanitarian efforts in Haiti, be aware that living conditions are difficult. You should confirm that the organization has the capability to provide transportation and shelter for its paid and volunteer workers. All relief organizations should have a security plan in place for their personnel. Please note that space in hotels is extremely limited.
While most crime victims are residents of Haiti, temporary visitors share the risk of falling victim. There remains a persistent danger of violent crime, including armed robbery, homicide, rape, and kidnapping. While the size of the Haitian National Police (HNP) force has been growing and its capabilities improving, its ability to maintain citizen security is limited. The presence of MINUSTAH peacekeeping troops and UN-formed police units remain critical to maintaining an adequate level of security throughout the country. The limited capability of local law enforcement to respond to and investigate crimes further compounds the security threat to U.S. citizens. In particular, there have been cases in which travelers arriving in Port-au-Prince on flights from the United States were attacked and robbed after exiting the airport by car (two such cases involving U.S. citizens have been reported in the first six months of 2013). Police authorities believe criminals may be targeting travelers arriving on flights from the United States, following them, and attacking once they are out of the area. Use extra caution in arranging transportation from the airport. Most kidnappings are financial crimes of opportunity, and kidnappers make no distinctions of nationality, race, gender, or age. Some kidnap victims have been killed, shot, sexually assaulted, or physically abused.
While MINUSTAH remains fully deployed and is assisting the Government of Haiti in providing security, travel within Port-au-Prince can be hazardous. U.S. embassy personnel are under an embassy-imposed curfew of 1:00 a.m. to 5:00 a.m. and must remain in their homes or in U.S. government facilities during the curfew. Some areas are off-limits to Embassy staff after dark, including downtown Port-au-Prince, Cite Soleil, Martissant, Carrefour, Croix Des Bouquets, among other areas. The embassy restricts travel by its staff to some areas outside of Port-au-Prince because of the prevailing road, weather, or security conditions. This may constrain the embassy’s ability to provide emergency services to U.S. citizens outside Port-au-Prince. Demonstrations, which are common occurrences in Haiti and can become violent, may occasionally limit embassy operations to emergency services, even within Port-au-Prince.
We recommend that you avoid all large gatherings, as crowd behavior can be unpredictable. Visitors encountering roadblocks, demonstrations, or large crowds should remain calm and depart the area quickly and avoid confrontation. Assistance from Haitian authorities is often unavailable. Be particularly cautious on days when political activities are planned. Take common-sense precautions and avoid any event where crowds may congregate.
Traffic Safety and Road Conditions
While in Haiti, you may encounter road conditions that differ significantly from those in the United States. The information below concerning Haiti is provided for general reference only, and may not be totally accurate in a particular location or circumstance.
Most of the main roads have been cleared of rubble following the January 2010 earthquake, although some rubble might remain in certain areas and impact traffic. A few roads remain impassable due to damage from the earthquake. People regularly walk on the side of the road and street-side vendors ply their wares on the existing sidewalks. Small animals (pigs, dogs, goats) are often encountered in the city and larger ones (cows and donkeys) will unexpectedly cross country roads. Cars are supposed to be driven on the right side of the road in Haiti, but few roads have lane indicators and drivers use whichever side of the road is open to them. Traffic is extremely congested in urban areas, and hours-long traffic jams develop throughout the country.
Driving in Haiti must be undertaken with extreme caution. Traffic is usually chaotic; those with no knowledge of Haitian roads and traffic customs should hire a driver through a local tour operator or hotel. Roads are generally unmarked, and detailed and accurate maps are not widely available. Lanes are not marked and signs indicating the direction of traffic flow seldom exist. Huge potholes may cause drivers to execute unpredictable and dangerous maneuvers in heavy traffic. The Haitian government lacks adequate resources to assist drivers in distress or to clear the road of accidents or broken-down vehicles blocking the flow of traffic. While drinking and driving is illegal in Haiti, people frequently drive after drinking, especially at night.
Public transportation in Haiti consists primarily of “tap-taps” that run regular routes within urban areas and between towns in the countryside. A handful of public buses exist in the capital. Neither is considered reliable nor safe. Regular marked taxis are nonexistent. We strongly discourage the use of “tap-taps,” public buses, and taxis. They pose the risk of vehicular accident - “tap-taps” in particular are hazardous because they are open and passengers are often ejected during an accident – and have been the site of numerous robberies and kidnappings in the past.
Never ride in open vehicles that lack seatbelts or on motorbikes without helmets. If you are visiting Haiti, to assist in humanitarian projects, you should confirm that your sponsoring organization has arranged to provide safe, reliable transportation during your stay. U.S. citizens have suffered life-threatening injuries and some have been killed after being thrown from open vehicles or motorbikes in accidents in Haiti. Those who drive in Haiti should do so defensively and conservatively, should avoid confrontations such as jockeying for position, and remain aware of the vehicles around them. Drivers should carry the phone numbers of people to call for assistance in an emergency, as Haitian authorities are unlikely to respond to requests for assistance. When traveling outside of Port-au-Prince, drivers should caravan with other vehicles to avoid being stranded in the event of an accident or breakdown.
Although Haitian law requires that applicants pass both a written and a driving test to qualify for a driver’s license, many Haitian drivers appear unaware of traffic laws. Signaling imminent actions is not widely practiced and not all drivers use turn indicators or international hand signals properly. For instance, many drivers use their left blinker for all actions, including turning right and stopping in the road, and others flap their left arm out the window to indicate that they will be taking an unspecified action. Drivers do not always verify that the road is clear before switching lanes, turning, or merging. When making a left-hand turn, drivers should be aware that traffic may pass on the left while they are attempting to turn. This is legal in Haiti. The driver passing on the left has the right of way even when the car being overtaken has its left-hand turn signal on and is attempting to turn left.
Speed limits are seldom posted and are generally ignored. Speeding is the cause of many fatal traffic accidents in Haiti, as are overloaded vehicles on winding, mountainous roads and vehicles without brakes. Poor maintenance and mechanical failures often cause accidents as well. Drivers should be particularly cautious at night, as unlighted vehicles can appear without warning.
Right of way is not widely observed in Haiti, and there are few operational traffic lights or traffic signs. It is advisable at most intersections to stop and verify that there is no oncoming traffic even if it appears that you have the right of way. Drivers can be quite aggressive and will seldom yield. Walls built to the edge of roads frequently make it impossible to see around corners, forcing drivers to edge their cars into the road at intersections to check for oncoming traffic.
In addition to vehicles, a variety of other objects may appear on the road in Haiti, such as wooden carts dragged by people or animals, small ice cream carts, animals, mechanics working on vehicles parked on the street, and vendors and their wares. Haiti’s unwritten rule of the road is that any vehicle that breaks down, must be left exactly where it stopped until it can be repaired, even if it creates an enormous backup of traffic. Cars often remain in the roadway for hours or days while often extensive repairs are carried out in-situ. Vehicles are often abandoned in the road or by the side of the road. These are often identified by tree branches extending from the rear of the vehicle. There are few marked crosswalks and sidewalks, and pedestrians often wend their way through traffic in urban areas. Additionally, motorcycles on Haitian roads tend to maneuver in between traffic on both the left and right sides of vehicles, as well as into on-coming traffic. Drivers should check all their rear view mirrors prior to changing lanes or making turns to avoid colliding with other traffic.