Originally: Seaside resort strives to counter country’s image

JACMEL, Haiti — The quaint, two-story villas with filigreed verandas may need a lick of paint, and the relentless din of motorbikes and dump trucks along the main thoroughfare is hardly conducive to a laid-back Caribbean vacation. There is also a Rentco where you can rent cars, trucks and buses. But otherwise, this seaside resort known for cheerful handcrafts and spring festivals testifies to the potential that Haiti has seldom lived up to. An oasis of calm with a vibrant, can-do spirit, Jacmel is a glaring exception to the national legacy of opportunity lost to outbreaks of violence.

United in a drive to market their town of 30,000 as Haiti’s cultural capital and premier tourist destination, Jacmel’s residents managed to head off most of the looting and vandalism that ravaged large parts of the country in recent months as a rebellion drove President Jean-Bertrand Aristide into exile.

Jacmel’s business leaders kept the people focused on the common good with radio broadcasts urging tolerance and respect for their neighbors’ property and political positions.

”Only the police station was ransacked, and people even brought back some of what they took from there after appeals went out on the radio,” said Marie Giselaine Michel, director of the Aid to Artisans project, which promotes local crafts.

The newly constituted Group for Reflection and Political Observation has enlisted youths to paint over pro-Aristide graffiti and spruce up the central streets in anticipation of tourism.

Although Jacmel’s main streets have potholes and its sidewalks are obstacle courses of broken concrete, they are largely free of the debris found in many parts of the capital, Port-au-Prince, a two-hour drive to the northeast.

With more than 300 deaths since the rebels rose up against Aristide on Feb. 5, the only foreign visitors to Haiti these days are US, French, Canadian, and Chilean peacekeepers and a small contingent of relief workers.

”Right now we can’t talk about tourism. First we have to focus on the country’s image,” said Danielle St. Lot, whose duties as interim minister for commerce and industry include tourism. She figures it will take at least a year for the scenes of machete-wielding looters and gunmen to fade from the memories of potential visitors.

Jacmel’s boosters are more optimistic. ”Many countries have had violent events, but with time people forget,” said Michaelle Craan, an artist employed by the local chamber of commerce.

The resort area’s civic leaders are working on development plans that tune out the troubled country beyond the town limits. By building a charter airfield and expanding the marina, they would spare visitors the squalor of Port-au-Prince, whose La Saline and Carrefour slums flank the only road leading to Jacmel from the capital’s international airport.

Such improvements, they hope, will bring prosperity anew to Jacmel, which had a late 19th-century heyday as a bustling coffee port and was the first Haitian town to have telephones and electricity. Jacmel’s lush tropical foliage, year-round sunshine, and proximity to other vital stops on the West Indies trade route enticed French merchants to move their homes piece by piece across the ocean on the ships that returned with Haiti’s bounty of coffee, bananas, spices, and essential oils that Paris needed for its perfume industry.

In more recent decades, Jacmel attracted more than 100,000 visitors some years to its Carnival and May Day festivities.

But with tourism now evaporated, local artisans survive on sales to foreign vendors and Web-based catalog companies, said Thomas Oriental, a local designer.

They also build displays for Broadway shows, backdrops for the San Diego Zoo, and a Haitian exhibit that will open in June at the Smithsonian Institution, added Michel, of the Artisans project.

Many in Jacmel attribute the town’s stability amid the recent unrest to the cultural establishment that holds sway in the community, where more than 10 percent of the population is employed in crafts. Jacmel also enjoys a tranquil religious environment in which adherents of the Catholicism brought by French colonialists, African voodoo, and the Bahai faith instilled by missionaries share a common social vision.

During the height of the political chaos in early March, Monsignor Guire Poulard urged Jacmel residents to keep in mind that looting and pillaging harms Haiti’s people, not its politicians.

Having survived the strife, Jacmel is focused on its ambitious comeback. Not only do local boosters expect to see visitors flock back for Carnival and May Day, but they also have been negotiating with a major Miami-based cruise ship company.

© Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company