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Haiti Hopes $160 M For High-end Tourism Pays Off

"Haiti is ready for tourism. Haiti is a tourism destination," said Tourism Minister Stephanie Villedrouin, a rare constant in the shakeup-prone Martelly administration. "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 number one on the list."

The government's projects include $13.2 million to build an airport and infrastructure on the southern island of Ile-a-Vache and another $8 million to develop the coastal town of Jacmel. Officials say these efforts will create more than 1,600 direct jobs and 6,500 indirect jobs. Tourism generated $200 million last year, Villedrouin said. This in a country whose annual budget is $1 billion.

Lest tourists fear Haiti unravels with unrest, the government is also building a force of 53 "tourism police officers" who will learn Spanish and English, first aid skills, customer service and work in the outposts where officials want to bring tourists. Funding comes from the Justice Ministry.

Other plans include making use of a little-known "investment code" that gives 15-year tax breaks to the owners of new hotels, many of whom are from the country's powerful and wealthy families. This law also allows hotel owners to ship supplies through customs without paying taxes.

Haiti used to be the stomping grounds for the rich and famous in the 1970s and early 1980s as they came in search of late-night Voodoo ceremonies, rum-fueled revelry and Cold War-era conspiracy theories. Guests included Mick Jagger, Truman Capote and Jackie Onassis.

But an AIDS scare in the early 1980s sent tourists to less exciting destinations. And the ouster of former dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" in 1986 spawned years of political upheaval as governments took turns toppling one another. The lone visitors became diplomats, peacekeepers, aid workers, missionaries and emigrants, all symbols of the country's problems.

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