Visit Beautiful Haiti?

Article excerpt

Byline: Rashmee Roshan Lall

An industrious tourism tsar makes a very hard sell.

"It's a package," says Haiti's glamorous young tourism minister, Stephanie B. Villedrouin, good-naturedly referring to the undeniable and politically incorrect truth that her good looks help with a hideously difficult job.

Villedrouin, who is barely 30, has spent two years selling her impoverished, politically tumultuous, tragedy-scarred country as a tourist destination. In that time, as part of the Haiti hard sell, she has launched a luscious new logo (a red hibiscus superimposed over the sun) with a come-hither tagline ("... experience it!") that went up last year on a big billboard on a highway running through Miami. She's pushed through a shiny, live-music-filled terminal at the Port au Prince airport; stitched up Haiti's first package tour deal in 25 years with one of Canada's biggest charter carriers; secured expert assistance from Mexico's tourism development agency; overseen the opening of one luxury hotel and the building of others; and launched 20 tourism development projects across the country. And in late January she attended the laying of the first stone for a new international airport at the picturesque southern seaside town of Les Cayes.

Additionally, she gamely deals with journalists and others who may focus more on her face and figure than her job. Villedrouin, a happily married mother of three, is unembarrassed to be described as a poster girl for Haiti's most audacious proposition ever: that a country synonymous with poverty and tragedy can seek to give people pleasure. And grow its economy at the same time. "I consider myself a [tourism] technician," she shrugs, "Haiti can--and should--have some of the Caribbean market, which is 21.5 million tourists per year and is increasing by 4 percent every year."

The aspiration is supported by an action plan that is lauded as smart and sophisticated even by those who agree with the U. …