Impoverished Haiti hopes $160 million to develop high-end tourism industry pays off

MONTROUIS, Haiti –  The only leisure tourist among the U.N. peacekeepers, aid workers, embassy personnel and missionaries on this beach north of the Haitian capital must have been Anne Fournier.

She didn’t live or work in Haiti or pretend to help. Fournier was here for fun, traveling to Haiti for the first time with her Port-au-Prince-born husband of almost two years. The couple visited a few of his relatives but otherwise has spent their 10-day vacation seeing the historic town of Jacmel in the south, wading in a nearby waterfall and relaxing on the beach.

“You can tell that the tourism isn’t very developed yet, and that’s the big charm of it,” Fournier, 26, of Montreal, Canada, as she sipped juice from a cut-open coconut. “Everything is an adventure here.”

Haitian President Michel Martelly and his administration are to trying to woo Fournier and others like her as they aim high to revive the country’s long stagnant tourism industry with investments totaling more than $160 million.

While many in Haiti welcome anything that can create jobs, some critics are questioning the government’s priority of trying to attract high-end tourists at a time when the country faces so many other problems, such as high unemployment, a deadly cholera outbreak and lack of housing for people displaced by the earthquake more than three years ago.

“It’s good that the government is thinking about tourism but I think it’s thinking about it in a very narrow way,” said Robert Maguire, a longtime Haiti scholar at George Washington University. “It’s an exclusive, high-end model that benefits a small group of the elite.”

Haiti’s tourism ministry had about $2 million in its budget under the previous administration, and received another $1 million from a Venezuelan oil fund in the aftermath of a destructive storm season, according to the former tourism minister. Today, the department has a budget that’s $4.7 million, plus $27 million from Venezuela’s PetroCaribe fund.

“Haiti is ready for tourism. Haiti is a tourism destination,” said Tourism Minister Stephanie Villedrouin, a rare constant in the shakeup-prone Martelly administration. “If we want to be a sovereign country, if we don’t want to depend on other countries, we need to figure out ourselves how to move forward and how to get revenue, and tourism must be number one on the list.”

The government’s projects include $13.2 million to build an airport and infrastructure on the southern island of Ile-a-Vache and another $8 million to develop the coastal town of Jacmel. Officials say these efforts will create more than 1,600 direct jobs and 6,500 indirect jobs. Tourism generated $200 million last year, Villedrouin said. This in a country whose annual budget is $1 billion.

Lest tourists fear Haiti unravels with unrest, the government is also building a force of 53 “tourism police officers” who will learn Spanish and English, first aid skills, customer service and work in the outposts where officials want to bring tourists. Funding comes from the Justice Ministry.

Other plans include making use of a little-known “investment code” that gives 15-year tax breaks to the owners of new hotels, many of whom are from the country’s powerful and wealthy families. This law also allows hotel owners to ship supplies through customs without paying taxes.

Haiti used to be the stomping grounds for the rich and famous in the 1970s and early 1980s as they came in search of late-night Voodoo ceremonies, rum-fueled revelry and Cold War-era conspiracy theories. Guests included Mick Jagger, Truman Capote and Jackie Onassis.

But an AIDS scare in the early 1980s sent tourists to less exciting destinations. And the ouster of former dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” in 1986 spawned years of political upheaval as governments took turns toppling one another. The lone visitors became diplomats, peacekeepers, aid workers, missionaries and emigrants, all symbols of the country’s problems.

They largely remain so today. The bona fide tourists who mostly visit are those who hop off the cruise ships docked in Labadie, a fenced-in beach attraction on the country’s north coast; Villedrouin said 600,000 of these people visit each year.

Villedrouin couldn’t say how many other real tourists came last year. But so far only 120 have showed up since January as part of holiday package with Air Transat, a leading charter carrier in Canada. Air Transat flies weekly between Montreal and Port-au-Prince, and reserves 30 seats a month for its holiday packages in Haiti, which cost between $1,399 and $1,600.

These tourists, however, are the exception, the country a tough sell not just because of its history of political unrest, dysfunction and disease or because it was designated by the U.S. State Department in 2012 as a “major drug trafficking country.” It’s also difficult to sell because its Caribbean neighbors are cheaper; hotels are relatively expensive and fees such as generator fuel and potable water are often included in room rates.

“You pay more but get more,” Villedrouin said, citing Haiti’s “added value” of culture.

The government is holding out that the tourism industry will create jobs as a construction boom for high-end hotels plays out in the capital and countryside. In fact, the government is making use of a little-known “investment code” that was revised in 2002. The law enables tourism investors to receive a 15-year tax break and import supplies without paying taxes. After the grace period ends, 15 percent of the company’s income will be taxable at the end of the first year.

“Think about something: They create jobs. They create a lot of jobs,” Villedrouin said, noting that each hotel room built creates two jobs and four indirect jobs. She adds that hotels charge a 10 percent tax on all purchases. Haiti’s minimum wage has held at 200 Haitian gourdes a day, or about $4.54, since 2009. “These investments will definitely create jobs.”

One bright Sunday morning, Fournier and her husband, Sadrack Duclair, relaxed in beach chairs under the straw-hut canopy. He photographed her as she laughed and played the role of Caribbean tourist, sipping juice from a cut-open coconut. Earlier, they had rented a car and found a driver to shuttle them among the tourist attractions.

“I knew coming here that it was going to be a big adventure,” said Duclair, who left Haiti as a child and last visited in 1999. “I think it began at the airport, the first day. After that I was like: Haiti.”


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