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

They largely remain so today. The bona fide tourists who mostly visit are those who hop off the cruise ships docked in Labadie, a fenced-in beach attraction on the country's north coast; Villedrouin said 600,000 of these people visit each year.

Villedrouin couldn't say how many other real tourists came last year. But so far only 120 have showed up since January as part of holiday package with Air Transat, a leading charter carrier in Canada. Air Transat flies weekly between Montreal and Port-au-Prince, and reserves 30 seats a month for its holiday packages in Haiti, which cost between $1,399 and $1,600.

These tourists, however, are the exception, the country a tough sell not just because of its history of political unrest, dysfunction and disease or because it was designated by the U.S. State Department in 2012 as a "major drug trafficking country." It's also difficult to sell because its Caribbean neighbors are cheaper; hotels are relatively expensive and fees such as generator fuel and potable water are often included in room rates.

"You pay more but get more," Villedrouin said, citing Haiti's "added value" of culture.

The government is holding out that the tourism industry will create jobs as a construction boom for high-end hotels plays out in the capital and countryside. In fact, the government is making use of a little-known "investment code" that was revised in 2002. The law enables tourism investors to receive a 15-year tax break and import supplies without paying taxes. After the grace period ends, 15 percent of the company's income will be taxable at the end of the first year.

"Think about something: They create jobs. They create a lot of jobs," Villedrouin said, noting that each hotel room built creates two jobs and four indirect jobs. She adds that hotels charge a 10 percent tax on all purchases. Haiti's minimum wage has held at 200 Haitian gourdes a day, or about $4.54, since 2009. "These investments will definitely create jobs."

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