COTES-DE-FER, Haiti – Off this sleepy southern Haitian village, fishermen in weathered wooden boats slowly move across azure waters. Miles of picture-perfect sandy beaches slope gently, fringed by grasses and framed by mountains.
In any other Caribbean country, such a pristine stretch of shore would have been developed long ago. But in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, the tranquil Cotes-de-Fer area is mostly uninhabited, holding just a scattering of shacks lit by candles, with little to do apart from fishing or working the sunbaked soil.
Things may be changing radically, however. President Michel Martelly's administration wants to build Haiti's biggest tourism development here, hoping that foreign visitors can help spur an economic revival in the nation of 10 million, where most adults lack any kind of steady work and survive on less than $2 a day.
So far there are only tentative signs of the hoped-for boom in Cotes-de-Fer. Dirt access roads have been widened with the help of Taiwan and Venezuela and locals hope they will soon be paved. The government is refurbishing the fishing village and training tourist police as it tries to line up investors for a country enjoying a period of relative tranquility after years of turmoil.
"We know it's a huge task and it won't be easy, but this is one chance that Haiti cannot miss. We've been at the bottom of the ladder for too long," Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe told The Associated Press as he visited Cotes-de-Fer.
A master plan for the area promises tax-free investments for 15 years in a development that could eventually cover about 5,680 acres (2,299 hectares), with up to 20,000 hotel rooms and condos. The first phase would cost nearly $48 million, with 1,266 rooms in four hotels and 1,133 tourist residences, an 18-hole golf course, and a beach club by 2017. A small airport would be built nearby.
Officials hope it will become Haiti's version of Punta Cana, a major resort town carved out of a fishing village in the neighboring Dominican Republic in the 1970s. Grupo PuntaCana, which operates the Dominican resort, has assisted Haiti with developing its plans.
The $266 million project would be the biggest ever in Haiti, which is recovering from a devastating 2010 earthquake that shattered the crowded capital, Port-au-Prince, and surrounding areas.
The broader tourism push includes development of the southern island of Ile-a-Vache. Plans there call for a resort with roughly 2,500 rooms and its own international airport. Dredging to accommodate supply ships is nearing completion, and the site for a future airport is being graded.
Haiti also has signed a memorandum of understanding with Carnival Corp. to develop a $70 million cruise port on Ile de la Tortue, an island off the north coast long known as a departure point for smugglers.
For now, the vast majority of tourists are cruise ship passengers who never leave Labadee, Royal Caribbean's fenced-in port and beach attraction in northern Haiti.
In Cotes-de-Fer, the possibility of a tourism boom is being welcomed by many, especially young people eager for opportunities.
"We're all hopeful about what the future will bring," 15-year-old Doyana Sterne said as she filled jugs with water at a pump where mules get loaded with saddlebags made of woven palm thatch. She has dreams of becoming a civil engineer to help build up her hometown.
Some have doubts about the viability of the projects. Haitian economist Kesner Pharel said potential investors may be scared off by a lack of good roads and other infrastructure as well as the possibility that political instability will return.
Lamothe, however, says the country has turned a corner, with more than $250 million in direct foreign investment projected for this year, up from $4 million in 2001.
Among those interested is the Pennsylvania-based Apple Leisure Group, which is working with the government to bring together hoteliers and airport developers for the south coast resort proposals. Its AMResorts arm operates 32 resorts in 13 beach destinations in Mexico and the Caribbean, including six in Punta Cana.
"We are confident that Haiti's natural beauty and proximity to the U.S. gives it great potential," said Apple Leisure CEO Alex Zozaya.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Haiti's tourism business grew under the brutal but stable dictatorships of Francois and Jean-Claude Duvalier. But political instability and the AIDS epidemic that struck Haiti in the 1980s largely devastated the sector. Seaside resorts turned into ghost towns, including a 700-bed Club Med complex.
But Haiti never lost its idyllic beaches, delicious food and rich history. The former French colony became the first black republic in 1804 after a successful slave rebellion.
It already draws adventuresome travelers. Haiti's second largest city, Cap-Haitien, is a cultural capital where French colonial buildings resemble old New Orleans. The picturesque south coast town of Jacmel attracts European and U.S. vacationers.
Tourism Minister Stephanie Villedrouin has lately been flying around the world to woo investors and hospitality companies.
"It's a day-to-day battle to change Haiti's image. But once you experience what it's really like, you leave with a different perception," she told AP as she sipped strong Haitian coffee outside a family's Cotes-de-Fer home where she spent the night instructing locals how to welcome tourists.
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