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Haiti as an upscale leisure destination? Not so fast, study says.

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Dieu Nalio Chery/AP/File

(Read caption) A young girl jumps rope inside the Jean-Marie Vincent camp for people displaced by the 2010 earthquake in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, April 22. Since the 2010 earthquake, it’s more common to see missionaries and aid workers here than beach-bound vacationers.

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A new study highlights the uncertainty surrounding Haiti’s decision to prioritize tourism as a part of its development agenda.

The assessment, conducted by the Igarapé Institute in Brazil, says that more visitors come to Haiti “to see family and friends,” or volunteer in aid or development projects than for the sort of recreation that draws tourists to upscale Caribbean beach resorts. The study notes that the Haitian government may need to rethink its current hard-sell of Haiti as a leisure destination.

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“The government hopes that an influx of foreign currency can help lift the country out of aid-dependency. Yet the prospects for tourism are still highly uncertain,” the study says.

More than 70 percent of Haitians live on less than $2 a day. Since the 2010 earthquake, it’s more common to see missionaries and aid workers here than beach-bound vacationers.

Haiti’s tourism minister Stephanie Villedrouin disagrees with the idea that travel that focuses on volunteering for a charitable cause is more suitable for Haiti than a recreation-focused tourism industry. Though the study doesn’t say the two approaches are mutually exclusive, it does emphasize that instead of focusing on high end hotels and resorts, Haiti should keep its attention on serving the majority working- and middle-class visitors that travel there each year.

Two tourism training institutes opened recently with support from the Haitian government, which is also developing an eco-friendly resort on an island, Île á Vache.

Tourism "will create jobs, directly and indirectly," says Ms. Villedrouin. "Though it will take time," tourism has the potential to change Haiti's prospects.

Jean Lionel Pressoir, who runs Tour Haiti says the country cannot compete with other Caribbean destinations on the bland 3-S (sun, sea, and sand) quotient. However, it can hold its own as an alternative tourism destination because of its unique history and culture.

Jacqualine Labrom runs the tourism company Voyages Lumière and was not interviewed for the Igarapé Institute study, which cites interviews with 2,231 tourists and 390 tourism professionals. Ms. Labrom says via email that her tour company has been around for 15 years, and is “looking after ‘real’ tourists, who are coming in purely to see the country and get to know Haiti.”

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Labrom says tourists are drawn to Haiti’s “wonderful beaches and beautiful mountains as well as the most magnificent fort, which is the only fort in the whole of the Caribbean not built by Europeans, but by ex-slaves.” She says her tourists “absolutely love Haiti and have gone back home, either to Europe, or the US, to Japan, or to Australia saying that they were going to encourage all their friends to come.”

But Haiti’s more recent history of political violence and frequent natural disasters decisively ended its 1970s and 1980s image as the celebrated destination where Bill and Hillary Clinton honeymooned. In 2012, just 950,000 visitors entered Haiti on tourist visas, compared to 4.6 million in the neighboring Dominican Republic.

The study highlights the potential that exists for the tourism industry in Haiti – but says it will take time. Crime is a big concern for many visitors, however, the study notes that petty theft of items of low monetary value was far more common than kidnappings, and that tourists interviewed for the study cited having a changed perception of crime from when they arrived to when they left. Furthermore, infrastructure projects are starting to move forward, and some foreign investors have invested in hotel and resort options across Haiti.

The study concludes that instead of focusing on high-end hotels and resorts, Haiti should keep its attention on serving the working- and middle-class visitors that make up the majority of visitors that travel there each year. “Efforts to improve the tourism infrastructure in Haiti should be mindful of the fact that few tourists come to Haiti solely for recreational or leisure purposes - even if wealthy tourists are desirable market segment from a foreign exchange perspective,” the study says.

Editor’s Note: This story has been modified to include more context for or from the study. A previous version misstated which institute published the report.