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LABADEE, Haiti (Reuters) - An ultramodern ocean liner and a 19th-century mountaintop fortress built by a slave rebellion leader figure prominently in Haiti's plans to revive tourism in the poorest nation in the Americas.
A key element of the hoped-for renaissance may be close to fruition. Haitian Tourism Minister Patrick Delatour said the government recently signed a deal with Venezuela for an international airport, Haiti's second, in Cap-Haitien, its second-largest city.
Starting in December, Royal Caribbean Cruises will send its new Oasis of the Seas, the largest cruise ship in the world, to a weekly stopover at the northern beach resort of Labadee, another important step forward for a tourism economy that crumbled under years of political turmoil.
The next move could be to build a road between Labadee and Haiti's World Heritage Site, a park containing the massive Citadelle Laferriere fortress and the Sans Souci palace built by Henri Christophe, a leader of the slave revolt that freed Haiti from French rule in 1804.
"In 2011 we will be able to say that Haiti is back on the world tourism map," Delatour told reporters last week.
Boosted by what is being seen as Haiti's most stable moment in a generation, President Rene Preval's government has set in motion a bold plan to lure tourists to northern Haiti, far from the dilapidated capital Port-au-Prince and its teeming slums.
The mystique of its voodoo culture, a thriving art scene and Caribbean beaches made Haiti a popular destination years ago. Club Med once operated a beach resort here.
But successive years of political violence took its toll. A popular uprising that ousted the Duvalier family dictatorship and its dreaded Tontons Macoute gangster militia in 1986 was followed by the army's overthrow of priest-turned-president Jean-Bertrand Aristide in the early 1990s.
A U.S.-led military intervention restored Aristide in 1994. More than 9,000 U.N. peacekeepers now patrol the streets.
Grinding poverty also discourages tourism. Some 70 percent of Haiti's 9 million people live on less than $2 a day and malnutrition is rampant.
Delatour said Haiti was now finalizing a $30 million loan from Venezuela to build the terminal and tarmac of a new airport in Cap-Haitien. The road from Labadee to the Citadelle and the town of Milot, home of Sans Souci, could be next.
The minister envisioned thousands of wealthy tourists from cruise ships making the trek from Labadee, where Royal Caribbean is spending $55 million to build a cruise ship pier and attractions, to one of the largest forts in the Caribbean.
Oasis of the Seas, which begins visits in December, can disgorge 6,000 onto Haitian shores each trip, officials said.
"One day we hope that our guests will have the opportunity to go to the Citadelle and Milot, when all the conditions are right for that," RCL chairman Richard Fain said as he toured Labadee with former U.S. President Bill Clinton last week.
Clinton, the U.N. special envoy to Haiti, talked up tourism at an investor conference he hosted in Port-au-Prince last week and also in a previous speech in Miami. He suggested the impoverished nation could lure 4 million visitors a year.
That would put Haiti on par with the giants of Caribbean tourism, Cancun, Mexico, which last year drew 4.7 million, the Bahamas, 4.3 million and the Dominican Republic, 4.2 million.
Haiti currently receives 900,000-950,000 yearly visitors, but about 600,000 of those come on cruise ships and don't stay over, occupy hotel rooms or eat a lot of meals in restaurants. Many of the other 350,000 are believed to be Haitians living abroad and returning to visit family.
Tourism officials expect more than 1 million next year.
Clinton, who ordered the 1994 military action that restored Aristide, has been visiting Haiti since the 1970s and said political risk here is at its lowest point in his lifetime. He encouraged foreign investors to look toward Haiti.
On his tour of Labadee and Sans Souci last week, he even had suggestions to showcase artists from Haiti, who are world renowned for their colorful, naif painting style.
"There are some really good shops in Port-au-Prince for art of all kinds but there should be a few centers around the country," said Clinton, who was greeted with cheers and applause by Haitian workers as he toured.
Clinton promised to look into the possibilities for easing U.S. government travel warnings for Haiti.
Eddy Labossiere, secretary-general of the Association of Haitian Economists, said Clinton's effort could produce "significant results" for the economy, but only if the government improves the legal framework and infrastructure.
"If they fail to do so, Clinton's mission will be in vain," he said.
Roads are poor, port costs are high and the electricity service is sporadic. Labossiere said the public grid provides only 80 megawatts of a needed 300 megawatts to Port-au-Prince and the price per kilowatt-hour is the Caribbean's highest.
"Hopefully they will be able to get the infrastructure to a point where persons will feel comfortable going back to Haiti and visiting," said John Maginley, Antigua's tourism minister and chairman of the Caribbean Tourism Organization.
UNESCO declared the Citadelle and the nearby Sans Souci palace a World Heritage Site in 1982, saying they serve as "universal symbols of liberty, being the first monuments to be constructed by black slaves who had gained their freedom."
But with its remote location and Haiti's poorly developed tourism industry, the fort receives few visitors.
"The Citadelle is just standing there doing nothing and it is the most important building of that time in all of the Caribbean," said Jean Lionel Pressoir, president of Fondestha, a foundation working to develop tourism.
Pressoir said the fort sees about 40 visitors a day now but needs work to make it more accessible, including guardrails. It is reachable only on foot or horseback.
"We hope to get 500 visitors a day eventually," he said. "But if we do 100 a day next year, I will be very satisfied."
Additional reporting by Tom Brown; Writing by Jim Loney, Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Cynthia Osterman