JACMEL, Haiti -- Once, the streets of this Caribbean port pulsed with the incessant traffic of sailors and merchants. Its harbor was lined with ships loading mail, coffee, tobacco and indigo.
Now, as it celebrates its 300th anniversary, the shabby but picturesque town 55 miles southwest of Port-au-Prince, the capital, is preparing for a possible renaissance. With its wide, sparkling bay and gingerbread houses, Jacmel has become the spearhead of a government drive to develop Haiti's tourist industry and revive the floundering economy.
This year and next, the government plans to invest more than $18 million to give Jacmel's peeling pastel houses face lifts, restore streets and highways, and improve electricity and water supplies. Financing is coming from the World Bank, the United States, France, Canada and Japan.
Help from U.S.
A $1.3 million project to restore the wharf, financed by the U.S. Agency for International Development, will allow docking for cruise ships bringing up to 2,000 visitors a day.
"The idea is to build on a little city with a lot of charm," said Tourism Minister Maryse Penette.
Jacmel doesn't lack charm. Cool verandas look down on wide, dusty streets, their delicate ironwork outlined against the sky. Beyond shady doorways, local artisans paint wooden figures and the strange, lurid papier-mache masks worn at Jacmel's traditional February carnival.
Scenery and history
The nearby countryside boasts the Bassin Bleu, a stunning series of waterfall-fed, rock-lined pools, the Price sugar and rum estate with its steam mill imported from England in 1818 and Fort Oge, a small 19th-century fortress set in the middle of a coffee plantation.
The government's interest comes none too soon for the 30,000 people who live in and around Jacmel.
"Wouldn't that be great?" says artist Thomas Oriental, smiling as he describes government plans to restore the wharf. "Many more tourists would come to Jacmel." The 39-year-old Oriental owns an arts and crafts workshop with 10 workers, each of whom earns $50 a month.
In the 1970s, under the harsh dictatorship of Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, tourism in seaside towns such as Jacmel began to flourish. By 1980, about 300,000 tourists were visiting every year. But after struggling through an AIDS scare and political upheaval in the 1980s, the tourist industry was crushed by a military coup in 1991 and the trade embargo that followed.
While political turmoil rocked Haiti, tourism in the neighboring Dominican Republic boomed. The number of hotel rooms in the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, has risen from 3,000 in 1980 to 40,000 today. During the same period, the number of rooms in Haiti has dwindled from 2,500 to 1,000.
Now that the country is relatively stable politically -- a U.S.-led invasion restored democracy in 1994 -- Haiti is hoping to turn tourism into the mainstay of the economy.
"We have no choice," says local economic consultant Kesner Pharel. "We have sun, we have good weather, we have beautiful beaches. You've got to use them."
In addition to Jacmel, the government plans to boost tourism along the coast near Port-au-Prince, which has a handful of resorts, including a site owned by the French company Club Med, and on the north coast around historic Cap Haitienne. By 2004, the government would like the number of hotel rooms to rise to 18,000.
Pennette wants to steer clear of mass tourism and target vacationers looking for adventure and culture along with unspoiled coastline. Pierre Chauvet, an old-timer in the business who runs his own travel agency, agrees.
"We want it to be a niche market for the experienced traveler who wants more than just sun, sea and sex -- culture too," he says.
Haiti, a former French colony, is steeped in the customs of the African nations that France plundered for slaves.
Despite French rulers' efforts to force slaves to renounce their religions and embrace Roman Catholicism, a fusion of African religions known as voodoo prevailed and is practiced by most Haitians. A polytheistic religion that involves elaborate rituals during which the gods often are said to possess the devotee, voodoo permeates Haitian art and music.
Art is ubiquitous. It can be seen in little painted ornaments made from bits of oil drums; in the tap-taps, rainbow-colored, ribbon-bedecked buses that rattle through the streets of Port-au- Prince; and even in a brightly painted shoeshine man's box.
In the affluent Petionville neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, art dealers and visitors from abroad browse in airy galleries stacked with powerful oil and acrylic paintings, some worth thousands of dollars.
"The Haitian has so much imagination and so much creativity, if we could just use that in tourism," says Pennette.