MILOT, Haiti — Bill Clinton, slathered in sunscreen, urged Americans to explore the riches of Haitian tourism on Friday as he took a VIP trip to a mountain palace and a nearby beach where a cruise ship pier is being built.
The appeal to tourists is part of the former U.S. president's crusade to help the hemisphere's poorest nation emerge from a cycle of poverty and instability — problems that helped destroyed a once thriving tourism industry here.
But his trip wasn't one that many tourists can match.
Escorted by local officials, Clinton flew by helicopter to the Sans Souci palace of Haiti's 19th-century King Henri Christophe as U.N. peacekeepers and Haitian police guarded against disturbances in the nearby city of Milot.
The few tourists who come this way for now — mostly locally based aid workers or missionaries — struggle through the city's traffic-jammed streets and negotiate serpentine, broken roads to reach the site, where they are accosted by desperate merchants selling souvenirs and mule rides to the nearby Citadelle Laferriere fortress.
Security officials cleared the vendors away for the visit by Clinton, who urged Haiti's government to make the trip to the fortress easier for all by rebuilding the roads.
"Think what a wonderful thing it would be if the transportation permitted every Haitian child to come here," he said. "They would learn about the greatness of the country's history."
The palace was built in the early 1800s as a residence for Christophe, a leader of Haiti's revolution who became president and then crowned himself king during a period when Haiti was split into two nations. He ordered the building of the soaring Citadelle nearby to protect against feared attempts by the French to retake the country.
Both the palace and the fortress — the Western Hemisphere's largest — are UNESCO World Heritage sites and among the Caribbean's most impressive landmarks.
Improved transportation and safety at the sites might prompt cruise lines to offer tours to them, said John Weis, private destinations director for Royal Caribbean International. Cruise visitors now only make daytime visits to the heavily guarded Labadee beach compound.
Clinton toured there later in the afternoon, buying artisan crafts including a wooden mask, bracelets and a bag made of coconut shell and leather from craftsmen who rent well maintained tin-roofed wooden stalls for $4 a day from the cruise company.
Royal Caribbean International is making $55 million in improvements to expand the compound, including a new cruise ship pier and a roller coaster, by early November. The enclosed beach currently brings in about 600,000 visitors a year, a figure the company believes it can double.
The U.S. Agency for International Development has launched a three-year, $19 million project to bolster the country's agriculture and tourism sectors.
Clinton repeated calls Friday for expanding the rudimentary Cap-Haitien airport to take in international flights so that visitors can avoid having to land in Port-au-Prince and crossing Haiti's difficult, mountainous interior to reach the north coast.
"What I would really like to do is offer people from the United States and elsewhere the opportunity to come to Haiti for a week," he said. "Start off with a day or two on the beach and go see the history and the culture and then have a way of going to Port-au-Prince or Gonaives and see how the country works."
He also called for further easing of the U.S. travel warning for Haiti, which was relaxed this year, to reflect improving security. Once a destination for cruise ships and movie stars, Haitian tourism cratered when the country was demonized during the early 1980's AIDS scare and was wiped out by unrest and a U.S. embargo following a 1991 coup.
Clinton returned to Port-au-Prince to tour a factory that makes work uniforms for Cincinnati, Ohio-based Cintas Corportation and visit a private port that will be used by a new free-trade zone. He was scheduled to depart Friday evening.