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Over 3 years since quake, Haiti sees big money reviving flagging tourism

MONTROUIS, Haiti--The Club Indigo beach resort north of the Haiti capital was crowded with U.N. peacekeepers, aid workers, diplomats and missionaries on a recent Sunday. But the only real, live tourists seemed to be Anne Fournier and her husband.

The young couple from Montreal is a rarity in this afflicted country. Crime, health scares, hurricanes and the monster earthquake of January 2010 have badly damaged the tourism that was once a mainstay of the Haitian economy, attracting the likes of Mick Jagger and Jackie Onassis.

Now the government is pinning its hopes on a surge of private investment in hotels and resorts, plus a Venezuelan-financed US$13.2 million airport and new infrastructure on the southern island of Ile-a-Vache, and an US$8 million development of the historic coastal town of Jacmel.

The Tourism Ministry's budget has more than doubled. Under the previous government it was US$2 million plus a US$1 million loan from Venezuela's PetroCaribe oil fund. Now it's US$4.7 million, and Petrocaribe is paying US$27 million to finance development on projects that include Ile-a-Vache and in Jacmel.

It says it has signed off on 15-year tax breaks and exemptions from import duties for 11 hotel and resort projects costing a total of US$160 million, with nearly US$100 million more in the pipeline or completed. It's also training a force of 53 “tourism police officers” who will learn Spanish and English and be trained in first aid and customer service.

While many in Haiti welcome anything that can create jobs, some worry that the country isn't ready for a tourist invasion. For one thing, the Tourism Ministry says it has only 3,200 hotel rooms. For another, medical services are woefully lacking, a point underscored in U.S. and Canadian travel advisories.

The government hopes to double the number of hotel rooms in two years. But the critics say Haiti first has to improve its infrastructure.

Sen. Francois Anick Joseph said the country needs paved roads, drinking water and reliable electricity. “There are a lot of things that need to be done before we can attract tourists,” he said in a telephone interview.

Tourism Minister Stephanie Villedrouin says Haiti has to stand on its own feet. “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 no.1 on the list.”

Each hotel room built creates two jobs and four indirect jobs, she said.

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In this June 29 image, tourists rest seaside while others wade in the ocean waters at the Club Indigo beach resort in Montrouis, Haiti. (AP)

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