[quote]Posted on Sun, Feb. 18, 2007
As Haiti carnaval kicks off today, the government makes a $2 million tourism push for Haitians living abroad to come home and enjoy.
BY JACQUELINE CHARLES
PORT-AU-PRINCE - In the waiting lounge at the international airport, images of colorful masqueraders flash on the TV screen. In the city, public service ads on radio tell patrons to leave their weapons at home: Carnaval is a time for fun.
And on northbound I-95 in Miami, a red-and-black billboard urges South Florida's burgeoning Haitian-American community to come home. Rio de Janeiro, it says, is a 480-minute flight away. Port-au-Prince, 90 minutes.
More than just a street party, Port-au-Prince's three-day pre-Lenten carnaval celebration, which kicks off today, is a carefully orchestrated attempt by Haitian President René Préval's government to set the stage for one of its most challenging goals: revive Haiti's long-collapsed tourism industry.
''We are making the statement that there is not a problem of insecurity in Haiti. Yes, there is insecurity in certain areas, but not in the entire country,'' said Tourism Minister Patrick Delatour. ``This is not a country either at war or one coming out of civil war.''
Case in point: Last weekend's carnaval in the southern port city of Jacmel attracted large crowds of both Haitians and foreigners, who jammed the narrow streets.
''There was between 300,000 and 500,000 people and no security problems. Nobody was killed. Nobody was shot,'' said Delatour, who attended the event.
Still, in a country struggling with an unprecedented wave of kidnappings, and sections of this capital city still suffering from gang violence that has made even Haitians living abroad reluctant to return for visits, staging the annual ''Haiti Kanaval'' presents a formidable challenge.
To pull it off, the government is beefing up security this weekend around the capital, just as it did along the winding mountain roads to Jacmel for that carnaval. Motorists going to Jacmel, on the southern coast, were subjected to two separate police searches of their vehicles for weapons.
CREATING A BUZZ
The Haitian government has invested $2 million in creating a carnaval-season buzz through billboards and a website, www.haiticarnaval.org, to encourage Haitians in South Florida, New York, Boston and Montreal to return home.
Past attempts to use Haitian expatriates as a springboard for reviving tourism here have been met with little success as Haiti seemed to carom from one violent crisis to another.
''We have a great opportunity here,'' Prime Minister Jacques-Edouard Alexis told The Miami Herald last week, as he mentioned several annual celebrations here, including carnaval, that already attract Haitians from abroad.
Private companies like MWM & Associates have recently tried to create a buzz by hosting an annual Haiti Tourism Summit in Miami Beach and offering packaged trips to the island.
''The numbers are increasing slowly but surely,'' MWM executive general manager Ginette Lilavois Villedrouin said about the number of Haitians who have booked trips to Haiti through her company.
Convincing Haitians to visit is key, tourism officials say, in order to attract visitors beyond the foreign missionaries and aid workers who now flock here. Outside of the estimated 600,000 Royal Caribbean cruise ship passengers who are expected to visit Labadee, a few miles west of Cap-Haitien, the government lacks statistics on how many tourists Haiti attracts annually.
While carnaval is the country's one big tourist draw, an international film festival in Jacmel is also drawing visitors.
Last December, an estimated 50,000 visitors attended the town's film festival where Haiti-born hip-hop artist Wyclef Jean performed. Jean has been designated an honorary ambassador by Préval to help lure tourists.
''This is a new day for Haiti,'' said Josette Darguste, chairwoman of the government's carnaval committee. She added: ``We want Haitians to come back home; come see the cultural riches your country has to offer.''
This includes the 4,000 masqueraders, and konpa musicians who will jam at Champ de Mars, the downtown Port-au-Prince square where Haiti's heroes are immortalized. The government is estimating 2 million people will join the party.
Among those responding to the call to come home will be two of Haiti's most popular musical performers: the T-Vice group and konpa singer Michel Martelly, aka Sweet Micky, who now call South Florida home.
''I want to make carnaval this year something fun and successful,'' said Sweet Micky, who after opting not to participate in Haiti carnaval last year now says he has poured $100,000 into his float, a decorated 18-wheeler from which he will perform.
Miami-based Island TV will carry the carnaval live on the Comcast cable network.
While Sweet Micky has chosen to stay away from political messages in his performance this year, T-Vice, keeping up the tradition of having carnaval songs reflect what's going on in Haitian society, has composed a song urging Haitians to reconcile after years of political strife.
''It's time for us to look forward, come together hand in hand and work to rebuild Haiti,'' said T-Vice singer Roberto Martino.[/quote]
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