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The buzz about Haiti – as a tourist destination?

President Martelly wants to attract investors to build hotels and resorts, with an estimated 2,250 hotel rooms completed by 2013. It’s a way to create jobs and improve the economy, but can it work?

Singer turned president of Haiti Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly was back on stage this year. But instead of performing the bawdy pants-dropping routines that made him famous, he was proposing something perhaps more audacious: Haiti as a tourist destination.

From Davos to Miami, Mr. Martelly has spent part of his first year as president promoting the country’s tourism industry as a way to both change its image and grow the economy.

“On tourism … for the first time Haiti is back on the international map,” he says.

Last year, only 300,000 tourists visited Haiti, compared to the neighboring Dominican Republic’s intake of 4.3 million. But not long ago, Haiti was the place to visit in the Caribbean. But then years of dictatorship, an AIDS epidemic, and political upheaval conspired against the tourism industry.

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Banging the neoliberal drum that he’s championed for other sectors – “Haiti is open for business” is an oft-quoted slogan – Martelly wants to attract investors to build hotels and resorts and tourists to fill them. Working with the Mexican institution that planned that country’s tourist successes likeCancún, the Martelly administration is hoping to return Haiti to its former glory as the “Pearl of the Antilles.”

In Pictures – Haiti after the earthquake

“We have in [the tourism] sector $450 million worth of investment that’s being made in Haiti,” Martelly says in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor. “You’ll have more of that coming. It’s a land of opportunity.”

‘Haiti: Experience It!’

This idea may run contrary to the image of Haiti as a land where misery abounded even before the 2010 earthquake and the incremental recovery that followed. A lack of infrastructure and political instability still play against it.

Yet Haiti is seeing investors build new hotels and restaurants at a pace not seen in decades.

“Haiti, in this moment, is experiencing its first hotel build out,” says tourism minister Stephanie Balmir Villedrouin. This includes large international chains like Best Western and Marriott, Ms. Villedrouin says, many of which are set to open this year.

By July 2013, the ministry expects around 2,250 new hotel rooms, creating 8,000 new jobs. More than half will open in and around Port-au-Prince, where developers aim to capitalize on the influx of businessmen and aid workers with business-class hotels.

Officials hope to fill rooms ­­– including close to 1,000 outside the capital – by promoting the country at tourism fairs. The new campaign, “Haiti: Experience It!” features the national flower, the hibiscus, as part of an effort to attract visitors, starting with the 4 million Haitians living outside of the country.

Not ‘the easiest trip’

Haiti “is not there yet but there is certainly potential,” says Carlos Vogeler, regional director for the Americas at the World Tourism Organization, a United Nations agency. “Haiti has … aspects that are distinct: The Franco-African heritage … the culture, some of the customs. There are certain things that make it very attractive,” Mr. Vogeler says.

Those who know the country extol the beauty of its beaches and uniqueness of its art, culture, and history. But these features are countered by more challenging aspects.  

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“It’s a beautiful place, but it wasn’t the easiest trip,” says Ashley McGinnis, who “got away” to the beach for a few days during a volunteer trip. “It takes a while to get around and it’s not cheap.”

Due to poor roads and unreliable government services, hotels assume the costly business of supplying everything from electricity – through generators – to trash disposal.

Visiting the sandy beaches and turquoise waters north of Port-au-Prince can cost nearly $200 or more per night at some resorts. Comparable resorts in neighboring Dominican Republic cost half as much, or less.

While slow, progress has been made in rebuilding Haiti since the earthquake.  

Port-au-Prince’s Toussaint Louverture International Airport has received a much-needed facelift, but graffiti reminders of the cholera epidemic that has killed more than 7,000 people since late 2010 are among the first things visitors see when they leave the airport. The government has closed many of the camps that once housed people displaced by the quake, but remaining blue tarp-covered shacks and ragged tents serve as jarring reminders of the miserable conditions in which many Haitians still live.

Will tourism benefit Haitians?

The government sees tourism as an engine for economic development. But even if it can attract foreign investment, Alex Dupuy, a Haiti-born professor at Wesleyan University, asks how much it will help the impoverished.

Mr. Dupuy drew a distinction between the Haiti tourism industry of yesteryear, dominated by local owners and products, and that envisioned by the Martelly administration.

“Bringing in foreign owners means that the benefits for Haitians will be limited,” he says. “If you have a big chain building a hotel, it’s not in Haiti for the benefit of Haitians. It’s in it for profits. And those are profits that will leave Haiti.”

Studies have found that only 20 cents of every dollar spent in Caribbean countries, on average, stay in that country’s economy. Foreign owners remove the remainder as profit.

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Dupuy said the plan smacks of many of the economic pushes that have failed Haiti in the past, such as the garment industry that offers meager salaries to workers.

“There’s not much new here,” he says. “This is a model that has been applied before and hasn’t worked for the majority of Haitians. It benefits those who are already wealthy.”

But Martelly says drawing investors to the tourism sector can get Haiti back to work. Jobs, even low-paying ones, are sorely needed in a country where two-thirds of the labor force is not part of the formal employment sector and the unemployment rate registers above 40 percent.

Show me the money

But convincing foreign investors to look to Haiti has been tricky.

“Haiti has always been a risk in terms of financing,” says Jean-Marie Wolff, who is working on a hotel development in Haiti called Belle Rive. “The financial institutions in Haiti don’t have the capacity … and the terms of their construction loans are prohibitive.”

Prior to the 2010 earthquake, the tourism industry was showing signs of recapturing some of its old self. Just days before the quake struck, Haitian-American developers announced a deal withMaryland-based Choice Hotels to manage two hotels in Jacmel, a small historic city on the Caribbean coast known as home to painters, poets, and writers.

The announcement gave renewed momentum to Belle Rive, a project first announced in 2009. The 23-acre oceanfront development was to include an upscale hotel, condominiums, a marina, tennis courts, and a movie theater in a dramatic setting on a cliff overlooking the sea.

“It’s been years and we’ve gone through all kinds of obstacles, including the earthquake,” says Mr. Wolff, one of 62 shareholders in the New York-based group, known by its acronym SIMACT  “We have everything in place, including permits and paperwork. … Financing has been the hard part.”

The project is both an indication of the tourism sector’s potential, and a reminder that Haiti’s history of political instability and complex legal framework, including a notorious land title system, pose a challenge.

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To upgrade a smaller existing hotel there, SIMACT turned to the Clinton-Bush Haiti Fund, which granted it a $349,000 loan in late June. The loan was announced following a two-day tour of tourist spots led by former President Bill Clinton for more than a dozen potential investors.

Wolff hopes to announce financing for other parts of the Belle Rive development within six months. 

The tourism ministry says it wants to make the country a safer bet for investors. Mexico’s National Fund for the Development of Tourism (FONATUR), which planned the resort areas of Cancún and Los Cabos, among others, is helping develop a plan to strengthen protection for investors and simplify rules.

The plan, ready by November, will focus on the Caribbean coast in the area around Jacmel, says Villedrouin.

Development there would fit squarely with Martelly’s vision.

“You can drive kilometers of coast and you won’t see a small house,” he says. “Bring development to that area and you realize how much can be done. So yes, Haiti is open for business.”