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8028: Travel-Tourism in Haiti (fwd)
From: Greg Chamberlain <GregChamberlain@compuserve.com>
Troubled Caribbean country trying to rejuvenate
By PAISLEY DODDS
JACMEL, May 7 (AP) -- Fifty years ago, movie stars such as Errol Flynn
and Ava Gardner flocked to Haiti, seduced by the Caribbean country's wild
scenery, glitzy hotels and exotic culture.
It was Haiti's heyday, a time when the country was ranked the
Caribbean's top tourist destination and called the Pearl of the Antilles.
"Our country used to attract tourists from all over the world," says
Jean Elie Mainville, marketing director for the Haitian Association for
Development and Tourism, a branch of the tourism ministry. "We believe that
can happen again with the right planning and enough money."
Despite the country's mounting problems of poverty, environmental
devastation, political instability and crime, the government is pouring
money into tourism development, an industry it hopes will reverse the
country's dire economic straits and revive interest.
One of its first projects has been in Jacmel.
"We spent a week in the Dominican Republic and will finish up our
vacation here because it is so beautiful, says Luc Danielle Visonneau, 46,
of Nantes, France, walking on the beach in Jacmel.
Unlike the crater-pocked highways that haphazardly blanket much of
Haiti, the road to this palm-fringed beach town is as good as it gets --
smooth asphalt, little traffic and leading to a place 2 1/2 hours away from
the political clamor of the capital, Port-au-Prince.
Jacmel, with its faded French gingerbread houses with vast vine-covered
balconies, is a relative paradise with its 24-hour electricity, clean air
and a newly-built wharf area the government hopes will someday be filled
with cruise ships and tourists.
Visitors can dine on $8 lobster dinners at local restaurants, dance to
live music at seaside thatched-roofed discos, lounge on pristine beaches,
parade through the narrow streets during February's Carnival or visit the
many artists who live in Jacmel.
One of Haiti's most famous painters, Prefet Duffaut, used Jacmel as a
model city in his magical paintings.
"Jacmel is one of our gems," Mainville says.
The government has shelled out hundreds of thousands of dollars to make
sure the road stays nice, the elecricity stays on and tourism gets
underway, but some say the government is getting ahead of itself.
"If you really wanted to attract tourists or investors the first thing
that you would do would be to fix the road to the airport," says Richard
Morse, operator of the Oloffson Hotel, made famous by Graham Greene's The
Comedians, a novel about Haiti under Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier.
Morse, who is Haitian-American, took over the hotel in the late-80s when
Baby Doc, or Jean-Claude Duvalier was still in power. Today only three to
six tourists come to stay each month, Morse says.
"In all of my time here, I haven't met one government tourism official,"
Morse says. "You'd think that if they were really serious about tourism
they would come to the country's highest profile hotel."
In his inauguration speech on Feb. 7, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide
said that by 2004 there would be 7,000 hotel rooms in Haiti compared to the
current 800, many of which are in establishments plagued by the capital's
inadequate electricity and feeble phone lines.
The Dominican Republic, which shares the same island of Hispaniola, has
20,000 international-quality rooms and an economy that has been visibly
bolstered by tourism.
"We're just waiting for partners," Aristide said at his inauguration.
Haiti, with its faded architecture, pristine beaches and rich mix of
African and French culture, still has many of attributes that drew such
Hollywood stars as Flynn and Gardner.
But time is running out for Aristide to convince both investors -- and
tourists -- that his country is worth a second chance.
In May, Aristide's Lavalas Party won a clear majority in local and
legislative races but the Organization of American States said the 10
contested Senate seats should have gone to a runoff.
Aristide's government refused, casting doubt on his credibility and
prompting the international community to block aid.
Some $76 million of U.S. aid to Haiti will be channeled exclusively
through non-governmental agencies this year, while the European Union has
blocked nearly $70 million in assistance.
Political instability has increased since, with the opposition refusing
to recognize Aristide's government and naming an alternative president.
Aristide's government has threatened to arrest Gerard Gourgue, a move the
United States has said it would be against.
And then there's crime.
Since March, two U.S. citizens have been killed and another was
kidnapped and later released.
"A lot of our friends told us to be careful but the people here have
been very open and friendly," said Visonneau, the French tourist who
visited Jacmel, where in January thieves killed two French tourists and
their Haitian driver. "We love it so far."
Krintina Rundquist, spokeswoman for the Assococation of American Travel
Agents in Washington, D.C., says few American tourists ever consider
vacationing in Haiti because of the instability.
"A large part of why Americans aren't going to Haiti is because of the
State Department warnings," Rundquist says. "The other reason is that other
parts of the world like Vietnam and Eastern Europe are opening up and
getting positive publicity."
Most guidebooks don't even ackowledge that Haiti shares the same island
as the Dominican Republic. The National Geographic Traveler's guidebook,
for example, devotes more than 300 pages to the Caribbean, including more
than 28 to the Dominican Republic. Haiti is not covered.
Still, people in Jacmel are waiting for Haiti's second coming.
"People come here to get a break from Port-au-Prince," says Jean-Ruid
Senatus, co-owner of the Hotel Florita, a small guest house in Jacmel.
"Aristide has promised that things will get better and that's what we're
hoping for, but it's a little bit scary."
The faded white hotel, adorned by flowering vines, Vodou artwork and
antique four-poster beds, lacks tourists most of the time.
But that adds to the town's charm, according to Aurelius la Rochelle and
his wife from Grand Bay, Quebec. The couple started visiting Haiti in the
early 1970s when Papa Doc was still in power.
"Back then there was more order but there was also more fear and
violence," said la Rochelle, 66. "Now there is hope and in the long term I
think tourists will come to Haiti because here you feel at home."
On the Net:
Haiti tourism information: http://www.haititourisme.com
Bureau of Consular Affairs: http://travel.state.gov