USA TODAY, June 8, 2012
By Yamiche Alcindor
Haiti, known mainly for its natural disasters, starving citizens and government corruption scandals, is hoping to leave its tumultuous past behind and re-invent itself as an investment and tourism destination.
At least eight hotels — including Comfort Inn, Best Western, and Marriott — plan to build or expand properties on the island-nation, according to Paul Altidor, Haiti’s ambassador to the United States. Haiti’s government is also revamping economic institutions and recruiting people with investment experience in an effort to streamline business endeavors and provide transparency to potential business partners. However, challenges such as homelessness, lack of infrastructure, and Haiti’s image as an international charity case threaten it’s ability to move forward, experts say.
“We’re trying to move away from survival mode to investment mode,” Altidor said. “We’re not convinced that sending humanitarian aid to Haiti is going to push us out of this poverty hole. We’re looking for capital and knowledge.”
Part of that move means Altidor, former vice president of programs and investments for the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund, sees his role as a roving one in which he seeks out and welcomes potential investors.
It also means Haiti’s president, Michel Martelly, newly appointed Prime Minister, Laurent Lamothe, and Altidor, who has been in office about a month, plan to revamp the country’s Center for the Facilitation of Investments, a sort of one-stop shop where people starting businesses in the country can get advice and process the necessary paperwork to make companies happen.
The country’s leaders also are hoping Haiti’s often “forgotten middle class,” some of whom are providing the funds to build and expand hotels in the country, will play a critical role in the country’s future, Altidor said.
Sitting in his office in Washington, D.C., last week, Altidor pointed to the Oasis Hotel, a $35 million hotel that will feature 130 rooms, three restaurants, and 14 shops, as a symbol of Haiti’s economic potential. Like many hotel projects in the country, Oasis is designed to serve mainly business travelers whose increased comfort, developers hope, will mean more economic progress.
The project, which began in 2008, is funded mainly by Haiti institutions and everyday Haitian citizens, said Jerry Tardieu, chief executive of the company developing the project. After the earthquake, many shareholders were killed or financially ruined. Since then, however, the project has regained local investors and is scheduled to open later this year in Pétion-Ville, a suburb of Port-au-Prince, he said.
“We are very proud to offer Haiti this rare symbol of modernity,” said Tardieu, who spoke from his home in Port-au-Prince. “We have started to find certain stability that will translate to us receiving more tourists.”
For Altidor, the hotel is an example of Haitians taking hold of their economy as well as a chance to show off Haiti’s long coastline and create jobs for local residents. “It’s a symbol of what the new Haiti could look like,” he said.
Other projects offer similar hope, developers say. Haiti has fewer than 1,000 hotel rooms compared the 50,000 hotels rooms in the Dominican Republic, according to Altidor.
“People are going to be more apt to do business if they are comfortable with where they are staying,” said Mark Williams, vice president of North American development for Best Western. A group of investors will open a $12 million Best Western franchise in Pétion-Ville by the end of this year. The project had been planned since 2008 but was set back by the quake, he said.
Jean-Marie Wolff, of Westbury, N.Y., is one of several Haitian-Americans who formed an investment group that bought Cap Lamandou Hotel in Jacmel, known as an arts and culture center, for nearly $3 million in 2006. The hotel will be re-branded as a Comfort Inn later this year to allow online booking and name recognition, he said. Plans are also underway to expand the hotel from 32 rooms to 49.
Wolff, whose group got their capital from U.S. and international banks, said Haiti’s diaspora must make an effort to help in the country’s rebirth. “If these people start to re-establish themselves in Haiti you will see a difference,” he said.
Digicel, a Haitian telecommunications provider, plans to open a $45-million, 173-room Marriott by 2014 in Port-au-Prince. At least four other hotels, El Rancho, Karibe Hotel, Kinam Hotel, and Le Village de Port-Jacmel are being expanded or are under construction.
However, in the midst of this economic renaissance, challenges remain, said Jocelyn McCalla, a New York-based Haiti expert and former head of the National Coalition for Haitian Rights. While Altidor points to the number of people in tents — down to 400,000 from 1.5 million just after the quake — as a sign of progress, McCalla said the government has forcibly removed people from such encampments. Many now reside in shoddy homes along mountainous illegal ghettos, he said.
The country’s infrastructure remains underdeveloped and Haiti’s credibility remains weak as the country continues to be regarded by many as a charity case rather than a business opportunity, he said.
Haiti is years away from being an investment or tourism destination and must develop cities outside of Port-au-Prince to succeed, McCalla said. The country lacks good roads, stable electricity, a proper sanitation system, and the resources needed to train middle class people such as plumbers, carpenters, and construction workers, he and others said.
“Most of downtown Port-au-Prince remains a disaster area,” McCalla said, adding that safety and transportation are among the country’s biggest impediments. “The average tourist is not going to be interested in Haiti.”
Some, like Mireille Toussaint, vice president of Haiti Tourism, says part of changing minds is about creating first-hand experiences. Toussaint’s Tampa, Fla.-based company takes small groups into the island-nation for excursions. “We’re trying to promote the hidden beauty of Haiti,” she said. “It’s really tiring to see only tragedy.”
Meanwhile, Altidor says the country’s government remains committed to changing Haiti’s international image despite any barriers.
“We face a major deficit in credibility when it comes to investment,” he said. “People look at Haiti, look at this embassy, look at me with this pity as opposed to someone they can do business with. That’s our biggest challenge.”