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Two years after earthquake, Haiti's new tourism minister takes on massive tourism challenge
Travel Markets Insider / January 14, 2012

By Larry Luxner

PORT-AU-PRINCE — Two years since the worst earthquake to ever strike the Caribbean, Haiti is desperately trying to turn its shattered economy around — and it’s counting on tourism to bring in badly needed dollars.

Leading that effort is 30-year-old Stephanie Balmir Villedrouin, the country’s youngest tourism minister ever. Her boss, President Michel Martelly, has vowed to create 500,000 jobs over the next three years through massive foreign investment in manufacturing, tourism and basic infrastructure.

“I come from the private sector. I know the obstacles tour operators and travel agencies face, and now I have the authority to address them,” Villedrouin told Travel Markets Insider. “My focus and my mission is to bring tourists to Haiti.”

It’s certainly been a while since Haiti occupied the front pages of newspapers and captured the attention of TV viewers. It was two years ago, on the afternoon of Jan. 12, 2010, when the ground beneath Port-au-Prince suddenly began shaking, and it seemed that it would never stop. The magnitude-7.0 earthquake killed anywhere from 220,000 to 300,000 people (no one knows for sure), made more than a million Haitians homeless, and reduced most of the capital city’s landmarks to rubble.

Since then, hundreds of thousands of people are still jobless and living in makeshift tent cities, though the rubble has largely been cleared and hope is definitely in the air. Port-au-Prince is buzzing with construction activity, and President Martelly — a former Creole pop singer — has adopted as his mantra the slogan “Haiti’s open for business.”

Martelly and Villedrouin were among dozens of Haitian government officials to address 1,000 or so potential investors at a recent two-day conference organized by the Inter-American Development Bank. Highlighting the Nov. 29-30 event — which was held in the capital city’s 87-room Karibe Hotel & Convention Center — was “Sweet Micky” himself, along with IDB President Luís Alberto Moreno and the star attraction: former U.S. President Bill Clinton.

“Everybody on this stage wants prospective investors to make money. We don’t think it’s a bad thing to make a profit. We just want you to make money in a way that helps the Haitians, too,” said the 42nd president. “That’s why the government has taken concrete steps to make doing business here easier. President Martelly has actively sought out investors and business leaders, and he understands that we have to do more to make Haiti more business-friendly.”

The day before the IDB conference, Clinton, Martelly and Moreno broke ground on the $257 million Caracol Industrial Park along Haiti’s northwest coast — in what represents the largest foreign investment since the earthquake. The 608-acre free zone will be anchored by a South Korean textile firm that has committed to hiring 20,000 people in the manufacture of garments for export.

The industrial park isn’t far from a planned international airport for Cap-Haitien — the country’s second-largest city — as well as a road now under construction that will link the coast with the Citadelle, Haiti’s famous mountaintop fortress built in the early 1800s by King Christophe. This National Historical Park will receive soon visit from the RCCL passengers.

Clinton, a longtime advocate of U.S. assistance for Haiti, co-chairs — along with Haitian Foreign Minister Laurent Lamothe — the Presidential Advisory Council on Economic Growth and Investment (PACEGI).

Besides Clinton, PACEGI’s 32-member board includes former presidents and prime ministers of Spain, Panama, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Jamaica and Colombia, as well as a number of businessmen including Denis O’Brien, CEO of Digicel, Haiti’s largest mobile phone operator.

During the conference, Digicel and Maryland-based Marriott International announced they would jointly finance construction of Haiti’s first major hotel since the quake. The $45 million Port-au-Prince Marriott Hotel will have 173 rooms, about 4,600 square feet of meeting space, a 1,600-square-foot fitness center and other amenities when it opens in 2014.

“Haiti is in great need of quality hotels today, and for the foreseeable future,” said Arne Sorenson, Marriott International’s president and chief operating officer. “We believe we can make a difference in Haiti by injecting capital, creating jobs, and developing the human talent that can help lift this country over time back to its rightful place as one of the top destinations in the Caribbean.”

Last year, O’Brien spent more than $18 million of his own fortune to rebuild the bright red Iron Market in downtown Port-au-Prince after it was destroyed in a fire and then the earthquake. The Iron Market was long among the city’s top tourist attraction and is today filled with arts-and-crafts and souvenir vendors waiting for business.

“In the weeks after the quake, we were looking for a very symbolic project that would help the local economy,” O’Brien told us. “We looked at rebuilding the cathedral. Spiritually, that would have been great, but wouldn’t have done much for the economy. So we decided on the Iron Market, which is the most famous building in Haiti. In 10 months we rebuilt it. We had people working on this 24 hours a day, because we promised to finish it in time for the anniversary.”

Asked why Digicel — with annual revenues of $4.5 billion — is pouring money into a Marriott hotel, O’Brien responded: “The view of the board is that we will invest in non-core businesses here if it’ll make a difference. We believed we need a business hotel in Port-au-Prince, and that if Digicel led the way, it would encourage other foreign investors. My job is to pitch foreign investors to come to Haiti. I hope there will be 10, 20, 30 others who will invest in tourism.”

Villedrouin hopes so too.

“In the past, Haiti’s tourism ministers did a master plan with big goals,” she told us. “Myself, I want to start with existing facilities, and look how to upgrade them and give them the knowledge to be competitive with the market. That’s one of my goals.”

Jean H. Charles, a columnist for the Nassau Guardian, offered warm words of praise for Haiti’s new tourism minister upon her appointment in early November.

“It has been a common opinion of travel connoisseurs that Haiti, in spite of its pitfalls, is a destination that can rival Bali in Indonesia, or Valencia in Spain,” he said. “Haiti’s governance has been so delinquent in its performance that it could not come close to its potential. The last minister of tourism, as well as his general director, was bartering for the last eight years a master plan that never reached the stage of application even at the elementary level.”

Yet Villedrouin, he predicted, “will be as the minister of tourism of St. Lucia, Allan Chastanet, or the minister of Jamaica, Edmund Bartlett, amongst the best in the field. She has the stamina, the creativity and the humility to start with what can be done now, and achieve later the potential of where Haiti can reach.”

Villedrouin studied hotel management in the Dominican Republic, graduating in 2004. The following year, she was part of the team who opened the restored Hostal Nicolas de Ovando in Santo Domingo’s colonial zone. Villedrouin spent the next five years managing the Hotel Le Montcel, a mountain lodge in the Port-au-Prince suburb of Kenscoff.

“It was very interesting to see how the D.R. promotes itself, so the first thing I tried to do after returning to Haiti is to participate in a tourism fair in Paris,” she said.

Last year, Haiti received around 600,000 foreigners — half of them “diaspora Haitians” visiting family and friends. The other half were largely business executives and representatives of NGOs. This excludes the 600,000 cruise-ship tourists who called on Labadie, Royal Caribbean’s private island off the north coast of Haiti.

At the moment, Haiti has 3,000 hotel rooms, but only 800 of them are at international standards — and nearly all of them are in Port-au-Prince.

These numbers pale in comparison to the neighboring Dominican Republic, which has more than 70,000 rooms. In 2009, according to the country’s Central Bank, just under four million tourists arrived by air, and another 497,000 by cruise ship. They stayed an average of 9.2 nights and spent a total of $4.18 billion, making tourism the Dominican Republic’s largest single source of foreign exchange.

“If we could get only 10% of the Dominican market, we’d be full,” she said. “we’re not ready to deal with big operators, but we do have enough rooms to receive niche markets.”

At some point, Villedrouin says, she’d like Haiti and the Dominican Republic to jointly market their two countries along with nearby destinations like Cuba and Jamaica.

“Why don’t we offer a combined island-hopping package, a regional branding, with two days in each island? We could have one beach destination and one cultural destination,” she said. “When you go to Europe, you don’t go to just one country, you visit many countries.”

However, Haiti is not likely to attract the kind of massive tourism that’s made Mexico’s Cancún, Jamaica’s Ocho Rios, Cuba’s Varadero and the Dominican Republic’s Punta Cana famous — at least as long as the country’s reputation is overshadowed by TV images of crowded tent cities, impoverished children, quake-ravaged apartment buildings and rampant crime.

“Yes, indeed we have an image problem,” she acknowledged. “That’s why in my first-year plan I’m focusing not on marketing but on public relations. I believe that social media is very important, so I’m putting in place a PR team with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to issue positive press releases about Haiti.”

Villedrouin said another of her goals is to rehabilitate the cruise-ship port at Jacmel, a colonial city along Haiti’s south coast that was badly damaged in the earthquake. She also confirmed that the existence of a plan by the San Aquino group of local and Dominican investors to build a large private cruise-ship port nearby, along the south coast of Haiti.

Argentine entrepreneur Rolando Gonzalez Bunster, a longtime Clinton friend who is also a member of PACEGI, said tourism will be the key driver of Haiti’s economy. “To a great degree, people should invest in what makes Haiti most competitive. The amount of work that can be created with tourism is enormous,” he said. “You’ll have to create infrastructure and destinations. Today it’s a lot easier than it used to be.”

During the IDB conference, González, CEO of Basic Energy Ltd., and Gregory Mevs, chief executive of Haiti’s WIN Group, signed a memo of understanding for the construction of a 250-room hotel adjacent to Port-au-Prince’s Toussaint Louverture International Airport.

The “Hotel des Artistes”, with total investment of $38 million, will feature a traditional Haitian arts-and-crafts motif. It’ll be managed by a private company, with completion set for early 2013.

“This hotel will serve many Haitians returning to their country who will transit overnight on their way to the cities where they came from,” said Mevs, noting that 50 of its rooms will be for extended stays.

Marc-Antoine Acra is general director of Industries Acra. His company is among several working to restore the El Rancho Hotel in Petionville. Before the earthquake, it had 150 rooms — the quake took out 50 of them. Acra said it will cost $6 million to $8 million to rebuild El Rancho, not including an additional 50 rooms that weren’t there to begin with.

In addition, a 130-room Best Western is being rebuilt in downtown Petionville, a project that is worth around $20 million. Ironically, the original structure — Haiti’s first new international-brand hotel in a decade — had been inaugurated only a few days before the earthquake.

The venue for the IDB investor conference, the Karibe, finished in February 2008, suffered considerable quake damage but has since been restored. Meanwhile, the world-famous Hotel Montana — which first opened in 1947 and was completely destroyed in the quake — has also been rebuilt.

Villedrouin, who in 2007 supervised Haiti’s first regional tourism fair at the Hotel Karibe, said that in order to market Haiti successfully, the government will address the infrastructure needed to develop the sector

“I’m putting in place a program with the CTO to help me standardize the products. When a tourist comes, he needs to know what to expect in each type of hotel,” she said. “My goal is to help hotel operators upgrade the level of their services. As soon as we have that structure in place, the types of excursions we can create are endless.”

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