PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Haitian President Jovenel Moise said the controversy surrounding U.S. President Donald Trump's disparaging comments about his county has hampered Haiti's burgeoning tourism industry.
“I must be clear with you,” Moise said in exclusive interview with Local 10 News. “These comments haven't helped our image or tourism industry. But to the rest of the world, I say Haiti is a beautiful place, an amazing place to visit.”
Moise, who will mark his first year in office on Wednesday, had been reluctant to comment on Trump's remarks. Moise said he regrets the negative comments coming from another country's leader.
"The Haitian people are proud, and aspire for a better future," he said in French, the country's official language. "I see it as a call to arms."
President Trump's vulgar comments about Haiti at a White House meeting in January are now well-known, and so is the bitterness and anger resulting from it. The remarks caused a firestorm of protests around the world, including in Port-au-Prince and Miami's Little Haiti neighborhood.
However, Trump's comments weren't the only setback facing Haiti's tourism industry, which in recent years the government has desperately tried to revive. The U.S. State Department recently changed its travel advisory for Haiti from "exercise increased caution" to "reconsider travel."
The State Department cited the country's high crime rate and civil unrest when it announced the decision in early January.
In the recent decades, Haiti has been beset by poverty, fiery political strife and corruption. But historically, the Caribbean nation was a desired destination for the rich and famous.
Moise wants Haiti to return to its days as a tourist hot spot. The country has added more than 2,000 hotels rooms in recent years and has seen modest increases in the number of visitors each year.
Meanwhile, the Royal Decameron Indigo Beach Resort & Spa opened in December about 42 miles outside the capital. The four-star getaway -- the county's only all-inclusive resort -- is beginning to cash in on new tourists.
"We really want to take this momentum to show Haiti is not all that negative on the news," Moise said.
Outside of tourism, Moise is focused on creating jobs, building new health centers, expanding and rebuilding Port-au-Prince's airport. Haiti is also building a new airport in Les Cayes, the county's third-largest city, and providing electrical power to people 24 hours a day.
Moise keeps toy construction trucks on his desk in his office -- a constant reminder of his promise to transform Haiti's lacking infrastructure.
Moise really wants to build hope in Haiti, and he says a visit from Pope Francis could do exactly that. He said his discussions with the Vatican began last week.
"We hope to the Pope this year ... if not, we hope to get next year," Moise said.
It's been 35 years since the Pope John Paul II visited Haiti more than a generation ago.
More than half of the country's population is under the age of 30. And if they don't have hope of a better Haiti, then there's no one to carry the torch. It's for the next generation that Moise is banking on with a papal visit to Haiti.
"We think that we can have a change in the mentality of the people with this visit,” Moise said. "The young people must believe in this country because it is their country."