BY JACQUELINE CHARLES
brought to you by: AHMTRAVEL.COM
LABADEE, Haiti -- Some vacationers Jet Ski, lounge on beach chairs and gorge at the buffet. Others hunt souvenirs in the nearby market or soar across the sky on a zip line linking lush mountains.
Right here, in Haiti.
Miami's Royal Caribbean Cruises has extended the palm-lined beach, put in a roller coaster and constructed an 800-foot pier -- a nearly $55 million investment that is fueling hope that this troubled nation can finally achieve the elusive goal of becoming a tourist getaway once more.
``We see a lot of possibilities,'' said Jean Bernard Simonnet, 54, who heads the north chapter of the Haiti Tourism Association. ``We have a lot of things we can offer tourists.''
Eco-tourism, archaeological exploration and voyeuristic visits to Vodou rituals -- all are being touted by Haiti's struggling boutique tourism industry as Royal Caribbean plans to bring the world's largest cruise ship here, sparking the need to increase excursions.
Even the U.S. Agency for International Development is weighing in, granting an initial $15 million in financing that will, among other things, promote tourism in northern Haiti by training Haitians as tour guides and hospitality workers.
``This broad interest and hope is a good environment to be in. You want people to be optimistic,'' said Ray Waldron, acting chief of party for USAID's Haiti Market Chain Enhancement, or MarChe. ``There is tremendous opportunity, tremendous potential.''
But returning Haiti to its tourism heyday faces huge obstacles, from a lack of hotel rooms and decrepit roads to a parliament that puts other priorities ahead of tourism.
The tourism push comes as the United States and other nations downgrade travel warnings to Haiti, the country's southern coast enjoys a resurgence of domestic tourism and Port-au-Prince's international airport undergoes a $1 million modernization.
It also comes as former President Bill Clinton, now United Nations Special Envoy for Haiti, targets tourism as a key area for private investment.
Clinton plans to visit Labadee with Royal Caribbean executives when he travels to Haiti on Thursday with 150 investors. Clinton will discuss his Haiti initiatives at the 13th Annual Americas Conference on Tuesday at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables.
``There has been an effort to at least raise the consciousness of the Haitian people of the need for getting back onto the international tourism map,'' Tourism Minister Patrick Delatour said.
Leading that effort so far is Royal Caribbean. The cruise line has extended its lease on the 260-acre northern peninsula until 2050 and remains committed to the expansion.
``The level of investment just speaks volumes about Royal Caribbean's commitment,'' said John Weis, the company's associate vice president of private destinations. ``We've never wavered on this but the project has been very challenging. There is a lack of infrastructure, building materials and heavy equipment available locally so everything must be brought in by barge.''
``The potential for tourism in northern Haiti is incredible now that we have a pier,'' Weis said. ``We feel this development will put Haiti on the map by making Labadee one of the best destinations in the Caribbean.''
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