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KABIC BEACH, Haiti—The kids can surf. They come after school, a group of a dozen or more, to ride the waves in the azure waters off Kabic Beach, not far from Jacmel, the country’s cultural capital. When they were younger, they learned to body-board on discarded planks of wood they found near the shore. Then came the foreigners who gave them real boards and taught them to stand on them, and now the kids make it look effortless, as though they’ve surfed since birth.
They are members of Surf Haiti, a small organization that teaches other locals how to ride, offers lessons to visitors, rents boards, and cleans up the beach. The group, which has 23 members ranging in age from 11 to 21, was formed in 2010 here on Haiti’s southern coast. The mission was to help the local kids capitalize on tourists drawn to the beaches and palm trees, the varied surf breaks—beach, reef, and rock—and the uncrowded waves.
The only problem: The tourists haven’t arrived.
Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas, still recovering from the 2010 earthquake that killed an estimated 150,000 people, is vying to tap the already crowded $28 billion Caribbean tourism market. The government recently doubled the tourism ministry’s budget to $4.7 million and has launched a campaign to attract visitors, including the enormous Haitian diaspora, to explore the country’s many untouched beaches and unexplored regions.
It’s a lofty goal. Haiti doesn’t currently have the infrastructure for mass tourism, and attempts to mark off specific areas for luxury resorts—namely on Île-à-Vache, off Haiti’s southeast coast—have been controversial. Despite its natural beauty, few people think of Haiti as a vacation destination. Haitians, for their part, resent the country’s reputation for poverty, violence, cholera, and corruption. The government’s wide-reaching tourism campaign is aggressively trying to change the perception, and thereby the reality.
Should tourism one day thrive in Haiti, among the first spots it will happen is here, in Jacmel and the beaches that surround it. A two-and-a-half-hour drive from the capital, Port-au-Prince, Jacmel is known for its artisanal culture and colonial architecture. It is home to a flourishing film school and hosts a raucous annual Carnival celebration; this year the Canadian band Arcade Fire played a free concert during the festival. There’s a beach in the city and many more down the coast. The food is delicious. The locals are welcoming. And there’s a legitimate surf break.
Not long ago surfing was completely alien to Kabic Beach. Ken Pierce, a doctor from Hawaii, first traveled to Haiti a few weeks after the 2010 earthquake as a disaster response physician. He later served as director at an orphanage in Cyvadier, near Jacmel. When he came to the coast, Pierce, who has surfed since his teens and had brought a board with him from his home in Kauai, asked around and nobody could recall seeing anyone surfing the local breaks. “The first time I paddled out at a spot near Kabic—now known as Pierce Point—the rocks were lined with kids and adults who were enthusiastically cheering for me,” he says. “When I padded in, I asked if they would like to learn how to surf. The response was unanimous.” The next time Pierce went home, he brought back several boards and started teaching local kids. Soon after, he co-founded Surf Haiti with a fellow Hawaiian named Alan Potter.
Joan Mamique, a 38-year-old Frenchman, took over Surf Haiti when Pierce retuned to the United States and now runs a guesthouse a short drive from Kabic Beach. These days the beach is a popular weekend destination for foreign aid workers living in Port-au-Prince and elsewhere. Mamique, who has the kind of baked-in tan usually reserved for Australians, has lived in Haiti for four years, working for a German NGO. For him, Haiti is an escape, a country still relatively untouched by commercial tourism. This, he thinks, will be its appeal to other adventurous travelers. “This island is like fucking Lost,” Mamique says. He means that in a good way.
Under Mamique’s watch, Surf Haiti turned into a small business. The kids began teaching lessons and renting boards to the foreign workers who came, providing the group with a small source of income. Not long ago, Mamique handed off Surf Haiti’s organizational duties to a local named Christophe Andris, who grew up near the beach and now serves as the group’s president. The aim was to make Surf Haiti a completely Haitian organization. Today Andris coordinates the lessons and rentals and teaches swimming lessons to local children. (Most kids, despite growing up at the beach, don’t know how to swim.)
Andris hopes that someday the best Haitian surfers will travel abroad for competitions, to experience places other than this stretch of sand. Most of the kids have never left the area. He hopes Surf Haiti’s members will be able to earn a proper living through surfing, and that the organization will help pay for their schooling. Every month, half of every dollar Surf Haiti earns through lessons and board rentals goes to the association for administrative costs, and the other half goes directly to the kids. It’s not much, but everything matters in a country where 80 percent of the population lives on $2 a day. “Here, there isn’t a lot of opportunities for kids. It’s important for them to have something to do,” Andris says. Eventually, Andris aims to host an international competition featuring both locals and competitors from abroad.