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For Some, Haiti Is an Island Paradise

March 27, 1995

LABADEE, Haiti (AP) _ Lolling in the sand beneath the Caribbean sun, the tourists gaze out at their cruise ship anchored in the bay. For the more energetic, there are jet skis, kayaks and snorkeling. A true island paradise.

``It’s not the real Haiti, is it?″ Kay Peck, 55, of Des Moines, Iowa, asks as she sips fruit punch at a beachside bar with waiters in Hawaiian shirts.

Now that President Jean-Bertrand Aristide is back in power and the U.N. trade embargo lifted, cruise ships are again visiting Labadee, an isolated resort on Haiti’s north coast. For the comfortably insulated passengers, the Haiti of political strife and desperate poverty is another world.

Two days a week, a cruise liner disgorges as many as 2,500 tourists onto the pristine beach, framed by slopes of lush greenery. They eat, sunbathe, buy curios and leave before nightfall.

During the political turmoil following the 1959-86 Duvalier dictatorship, cruise passengers were told only that they were on the island of Hispaniola, which Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic. But these days Haiti is displayed on literature from the Royal Caribbean line.

The resort, however, is sealed off by a gate, fence and security guards, much like beaches frequented by Haiti’s elite and members of the U.S.-led multinational military force outside the capital, Port-au-Prince.

By land, the resort is accessible only by a winding, rutted road far from any major towns. The tourists do not see the squalor and dusty, eroded hillsides that make up much of Haiti.

``The picturesque scenery, it’s unbelievable,″ marveled Don Erickson, 59, of Old Orchard Beach, Maine.

He appeared unconcerned by Haiti’s long history of political turmoil.

``I don’t worry about stuff like that,″ said Erickson, who was on a seven-day cruise. ``I just try to mind my own business. If I had anything to worry about, they wouldn’t be stopping here.″

Despite the beach’s isolation, tourists aboard the Majesty of the Seas got a brief reminder of the real Haiti. Three U.S. military helicopters, part of the U.S.-led force that restored Aristide to power Oct. 15, twice banked low over the Royal Caribbean liner.

Cruise ships stopped coming after Aristide was ousted in a 1991 military coup but started again in January. Haitians who had no jobs for three years are back in business.

``It was like a liberation for them when the ships came back,″ said Edward de la Fuente, manager of the Labadee resort.

That does not mean they are happy.

Roland Jacques, 23, who hands out lifejackets to tourists who want a crack at a watersport, says he does not get tips because the visitors sign for extras with a boarding card. Making $4 daily three days a week is not enough, he said.

``They have no reason to bring a lot of money over here,″ said Jacques, surrounded by colleagues who nodded in agreement. ``We want another system.″

The tourists buy curios with U.S. dollars rather than gourdes, Haiti’s currency, and their broader economic impact on the area is unclear.

Although tourism has been in the doldrums for a decade, Haiti’s beaches were popular in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Aware of the money-making potential, Aristide’s government has elevated the tourist office to Cabinet level and given it a $930,000 budget this year.

There is even a Haiti tourism motto: ``Rediscover the magic.″

The ministry will target the 1.5 million Haitians living abroad, as well as tourists interested in Haitian crafts and culture. Club Med, which used to run a resort near Port-au-Prince, is planning to reopen.

Maj. Eric Flaxman, a U.S. Army Reserve officer serving on a civil affairs advisory team and owner of a Philadelphia travel agency, said it will be hard to change the perception of Haiti as a strife-torn spot.

As long as Haiti’s political fortunes are unpredictable, planning tourism will remain hard. ``You don’t know what’s going to happen a year from now, much less five years from now,″ Flaxman said.