U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for instance, skillfully limited her impact and demonstrated sensitivity to the situation by remaining at the airport rather than trekking into Port-au-Prince. She still achieved her goal of consulting with Haitian President René Préval. The United Nations' leader, Ban, went to Haiti to visit his staff and repatriate the remains of his local special representative and deputy special representative, who died in the collapse of the United Nations' Port-au-Prince headquarters. The incident was the single largest loss of staff in the history of the United Nations, and Ban's visit bolstered the shaken mission.
To be sure, many of Haiti's visitors have had legitimate reasons for wanting to go: coordinating assistance, bringing closure to families, bearing witness to the disaster, determining the ground truth for needs assessments, and strengthening the case to donors. But the credibility and visibility given to visitors increases the incentives for others to try to go. Sadly, and as shocking as it might seem, the Port-au-Prince crisis risks becoming a destination for "disaster tourists." Thus, international and local officials should vet each prospective traveler, determining his or her potential contributions and urgency to the recovery effort.
As the expected deluge of visitor requests increases, the barrier to entry should be high. With 1,400 flights backed up and a nearly two-week wait to land at the Port-au-Prince airport, landing clearances pose a major logistical challenge, but also an opportunity: Forces in control can filter less-than-essential travelers. In addition, each of the 500 or more organizations working in Haiti should carefully weigh visit requests and encourage those not performing groundwork essential to the recovery to stay put, for the time being. A visit by the head of each organization would easily overwhelm nascent coordination structures in Port-au-Prince.
Former French President François Mitterrand's visit to Sarajevo in 1992 is another example of a high-level visit to an emergency done right. Although criticized at the time, his gutsy trip involved flying into the besieged city via helicopter while firefights were ongoing. The goal was to demonstrate solidarity with a people under siege by taking the kind of risk Sarajevans faced every day.
In Haiti, there is no comparable motive. Relief and development workers in Haiti can best manifest international solidarity for the people of Port-au-Prince, and media attention will be most needed weeks from now when the international spotlight on the island has faded. The outpouring of aid to Haiti has been unprecedented. But for the sake of responders and -- most of all -- the Haitian people, for now, many interested parties not crucial to the response should stay at home.