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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?

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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.

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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.  

“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.

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.

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