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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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“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.”

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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 with Maryland-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.

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.”

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