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 in the village, 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, 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.