It has an image of a hellhole and was recently named among the world’s 10 most dangerous destinations, alongside Iraq and Somalia, by Forbes magazine.
The United States government keeps a permanent warning against travelling there.
Diplomats, journalists and aid workers who do land on Haitian soil spend much of their time holed up in fortified hotels.
But now, according to new statistics from security experts and United Nations officials, Haiti is far less violent than many other Latin American countries. “It’s a big myth,” said Fred Blaise, of Haiti’s UN peacekeeping force.
“Port-au-Prince is no more dangerous than any big city. You can go to New York and get pickpocketed or held at gunpoint.”
The UN says there were 487 homicides in Haiti last year, or about 5.6 per 100,000 people.
A joint UN-World Bank study put the Caribbean average at 30 per 100,000 in 2007, with Jamaica registering nearly nine times as many murders - 49 homicides per 100,000 people - as those recorded by the UN in Haiti.
In 2006 the neighbouring Dominican Republic had 23.6 homicides per 100,000, according to the Central American Observatory on Violence.
The United States had a murder rate of 5.7 per 100,000 in 2006, according to the US Department of Justice.
“There is not a large amount of violence [in Haiti],” said General Jose Elito Carvalho Siqueira, the former commander of the UN military force. “If you compare the levels of poverty with those of Sao Paulo or other cities, there is more violence there than here.”
Security improved markedly last year and kidnappings fell by nearly 70 per cent as the UN wrested control of Port-au-Prince’s battle-torn slums from armed groups.
President Rene Preval, elected in February 2006 with strong support from the poor, managed to mollify Haiti’s political Opposition and tiny elite.
Gunshots are now seldom heard in the city, and in the countryside violent crime has always been rare. Attacks on foreigners are rare and recent flights from Miami to the capital have been packed with Christian missionaries.
“If you compare Haiti to Iraq, to Afghanistan, to Rwanda - we don’t even appear on the same scale,” said Patrick Elie, who heads a government commission studying the creation of a new security force.
“We’ve had a tumultuous history ... But except for the war to obtain our freedom from the French, Haiti has never known a level of violence comparable to that waged in Europe, in America and countries in Africa and Asia.”
Viva Rio, a violence reduction group from Brazil, found Haiti’s armed groups more receptive than those in Rio de Janeiro’s slums.
For most Haitians, the pressing issue is rising food costs.
Rice prices have nearly doubled since September, and tens of thousands took to the streets last month. But after the President gave a televised address, the protests ended as quickly as they began.
“Our problem isn’t violence,” said Yvner Meneide, a Port-au-Prince artisan. “If we were violent, we would organise demonstrations every day. We would be destroying things.
“But Haitian people are very moderate. We might be hungry, but we are calm.”