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Haiti has long been viewed as the basket case of the Americas - plagued by political unrest, hurricanes and chronic poverty. A massive earthquake three years ago destroyed much of its capital. But the Haitian government is hoping to remake its image, marketing the country as a tourist destination. President Michel Martelly says Haiti can use tourism as a way to fight poverty.

But NPR's Jason Beaubien reports this kind of image makeover won't be easy.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Haiti used to be a Caribbean hotspot. Bill Clinton regularly recounts how he and Hillary honeymooned here in 1975. There used to be a hopping Club Med just outside the capital. Before HIV, Haiti also had a reputation as a sex tourism destination.

The country now still has a lot to offer. It's got warm weather, miles and miles of undeveloped Caribbean coastline, rich history. Because of this, officials now are revamping the Cap-Haitien International Airport as a gateway to the country's potential tourist attractions.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)

BEAUBIEN: Unfortunately, any tourist landing here in Cap-Haitien would have to fight their way through this slum that is downtown to get to any of it. The filthy streets here are not only jammed with overloaded motorbikes, there's sludge overflowing from open sewers. Piles of trash are burning by the airport. The roads are pocked with jagged potholes and missing manhole covers that could doom a family's vacation before they even reach the hotel.

STEPHANIE VILLEDROUIN: My goal is to reposition Haiti as a tourism destination and attract the leisure tourism.

BEAUBIEN: Stephanie Villedrouin became Haiti's Minister of Tourism about a year and a half ago. She's become a barnstorming advocate for the country, touting its food, its beaches and its culture to anyone who will listen. Villedrouin acknowledges that Haiti's tourism industry needs to be rebuilt and it's tiny compared to the multi-billion dollars generated each year in the neighboring Dominican Republic. But she says tourism could be a major economic development tool for the country.

VILLEDROUIN: These revenues for our economy will help us eradicate poverty, and take out people from the tents. So that's the message. Don't just send money through a wire or through an NGO for us. Come and experience Haiti because we have so much to showcase.

BEAUBIEN: Visitors to Port-au-Prince, she suggests, can stop by the National Museum, attend a voodoo ceremony and dine on griot, a Creole dish of fried goat. The problem, however, is that Port-au-Prince isn't geared for tourists. Traffic in the capital can be hellish, streets are unmarked, hotel rooms are hard to come by and expensive. Just last month, the U.S. State Department issued a stern warning for Haiti, noting the lack of adequate medical facilities, the presence of cholera and limited police protection, quote, "no one is safe from kidnapping," the document warns.

In recent months, travelers arriving in Port-au-Prince on flights from the United States were attacked and robbed shortly after departing the airport. It's in part because of these difficult conditions in the capital, that two-thirds of the foreign visitors to Haiti each year never leave a fenced-off, private beach on the northern coast.

This is the resort of Labadee, just up the coast from Cap-Haitien. It's reachable only by a 4X4 over a terrible road or by cruise ship.

JUAN BELIZAIRE: I don't like it, I don't like it.

BEAUBIEN: Juan Belizaire is standing outside the black fence of the beach resort. Behind him, the largest cruise ship in the world, Royal Caribbean's The Allure of the Seas, is docked in the cove. Belizaire drives a motorcycle taxi between Labadee and Cap-Haitien. But he says the thousands of cruise ship passengers don't help this deeply impoverished corner of Haiti because they aren't allowed out of the resort.

BELIZAIRE: When the passenger comes in, he stays only on the beach. The company takes the passengers to stay only behind the fence. I don't like it like that.

BEAUBIEN: At Labadee, the first and the third world slam up against each other. Inside the fence, cruise ship passengers lounge in bikinis on the pristine tropical beach. There's a roller coaster, a waterslide, a zip line. Outside the fence, a woman cooks rice and beans over an open fire. She sells lukewarm drinks out of a broken refrigerator that's been laid on its back in the dirt.

Labadee is just six miles from Cap-Haitien, but the road is in such bad shape that it takes 45 minutes in a four-wheel-drive to get there. The resort does generate revenue for the federal government and it provides jobs and some prescreened souvenir vendors are allowed in. Supporters of the project also note that Royal Caribbean built a school in the area.

President Michel Martelly talking to foreign reporters earlier this month said that despite its poverty and misery, Haiti offers visitors something different.

PRESIDENT MICHEL MARTELLY: I'm sure you come here, you feel it. You not just for the news, you have a feeling when you come here to Haiti, I'm going to Haiti.

BEAUBIEN: Martelly says tourism is a promising sector for the Haitian economy and the government is spending millions on new airports, hotels and a hospitality training school to try to tap into the multi-billion dollar Caribbean tourism market.

MARTELLY: I invite you to come and enjoy Carnival next month.

BEAUBIEN: The musician-turned-politician says Haiti's pre-Lent Carnival is the worst organized in the Caribbean, but the most fun. He adds you can get married three times in one night at the raucous street party. Joking aside, the Haitian president says his government is aware of Haiti's challenges, but he sees tourism as a major growth opportunity for the country. Jason Beaubien, NPR News.

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