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'Tourism critical to Haiti's recovery'

BY INGRID BROWN Sunday Observer senior reporter browni@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, February 07, 2010    

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FROM the devastation caused by the deadly January 12 earthquake, Haiti could emerge an attractive tourism destination.

Carlos Vogeler, the United Nations World Tourism Organisation's (UNWTO's) regional representative for the Americas, told the Sunday Observer that already offers have been pouring in from major entities willing to fund the recovery of the tourism sector in that country.

"Tourism can be one of the vehicles which can help Haiti to not go back to where they were because they were not in very good shape, but to go to a much better condition than the one they had before," Vogeler said.

Vogeler, who was in Jamaica for the third annual Tourism Outlook Seminar held at the Ritz-Carlton Golf and Spa Resort in Montego Bay last week, said the offers for funding have come from stakeholders in the private sector, governments worldwide and international corporation agencies.

He noted that the UNWTO will be putting together a white paper outlining the main points of a plan of recovery for Haiti's tourism sector. The paper, Vogeler said, will be presented at major international conferences such as the upcoming ITB Berlin Convention, the leading travel industry think tank with more than 12,000 participants, to raise funds.

He added that the intention is to ensure that Haiti's tourism sector returns far more vibrant than it ever was.

"It (the earthquake) is very unfortunate for all those who have lost their lives and people who have lost their loved ones. But on the other hand, life goes on and the people who are there deserve a better way of living, and tourism will be able to bring that better way of living to them," Vogeler said.

Haiti was getting ready to capitalise on its sunny weather and tropical scenery to attract tourist to that impoverished island nation when the magnitude-7.0 earthquake rocked the French-speaking country, killing an estimated 200,000 and leaving millions homeless.

New hotels, new attention from international investors and buzz among travellers who have visited in recent years seem to signal a renewed interest in Haiti as a destination. Just two hours away by plane from Miami, Florida, the country had one of the strongest tourist industries in the Caribbean in the 1950s and '60s, according to Americas, the magazine of the Organisation of American States.

However, things began to change with the deterioration of the political climate.

Meanwhile, the Dominican Republic, Haiti's neighbour on the island of Hispaniola, welcomed almost four million people in 2008, according to the Caribbean Tourism Organisation. Other international reports put visitors to Haiti at approximately 900,000, with most arriving on cruise ships for a brief excursion and spending very little time in resorts and restaurants.

But glimmers of hope had returned to Haiti's fledgling tourism industry with a hotel chain announcing prior to the earthquake that it would open two hotels in Jacmel, a picturesque town in the south of the country. Former US president Bill Clinton, who was named a United Nations special envoy to Haiti last spring, is said to have visited the country in October to promote local tourism, and advised investors it was the right time to make Haiti "an alluring tourist destination". The news agency Reuters also reported last year that Haiti had inked a deal with Venezuela to build a second international airport in Cap-Haitien, the country's second largest city.

Now Vogeler says the tragedy and devastation in Haiti brings an even greater opportunity for tourism to become the vehicle to improve that country's economy.

"I think it is quite evident that Haiti has not been able to position itself in the tourism arena as many other countries in the Caribbean have, and today, looking at the devastation, I think that tourism can be an excellent vehicle to help in the recovery," he told the Sunday Observer.

Vogeler said that with the country having lost a lot of its infrastructure, there is the opportunity to rebuild from scratch in many areas. He was careful to point out that the UNWTO will be working alongside the Haitian authorities to make it all happen.

"The first thing we intend to do is touch base with the Haitian authorities and discuss the plans with them and have them actually lead the plan, because they are the ones who will have to take the decisions about what it is that they want," he said.

Prior to meeting with Jamaica's tourism minister Edmund Bartlett and the Bahamas' tourism minister Vincent Vanderpool Wallace, and the Caribbean Tourism Organisation last week, Vogeler explained that Jamaica will feature significantly in the process, given that the country has offered its services to be used as a base for relief efforts in Haiti.

Bartlett, in the interim, has said that a meeting is to be arranged soon, either in Jamaica, the Dominican Republic or Haiti, with Haiti's tourism minister Patrick Delatour, to chart the way forward.

"We will be meeting to discuss the approach for economic reconstruction of Haiti because we are of the view that tourism can energise a quicker recovery process," he said.

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