The ride from the international airport in Port -au –Prince to the suburb of Petion-Ville is long, rocky and dusty. On either side are snapshots of street life in in a country that is still struggling from an earthquake that struck one quiet night in January more than three years ago. Women and men walk purposefully down potholed streets balancing baskets on their heads that are crammed with flowers, toiletries and live animals like chickens and goats which presumably will end up in a stew pot. Roadside vendors sell t-shirts that judging from the slogans might have been donated after the quake, kids play in the rubble, the tent cities are still open, mechanic shops are busy and minibuses or 'tap-taps' are a colorful addition to the parade of traffic. The recovery may be slow but the locals are generous with their smiles and demonstrate a resiliency of spirit that can only be admired.
|Tap-Tap ( credit: connect.state.gov)|
|Flower Man ( credit: M. Reffes )|
|High School Port au Prince ( credit: M. Reffes )|
Although aid workers and government officials make up the bulk of foreigners in the country, the ministry of tourism is determined to attract cash-spending tourists who will choose Haiti as a vacation destination, not a country that only welcomes those working for the relief efforts. Positive initiatives are in full gear including at The Karibe Convention Center which is undergoing a US$10 million expansion, Digicel, the largest telecommunication company in Caribbean, moved its French speaking call center from Martinique to Petion-Ville and investment is being aggressively courted for resort development in three target areas of the country.
|Street Dance ( credit: Ministry of Tourism)|
Locals are also making a mark like Carine Clermont who with her Group of Concerned Citizens provides training in the schools and businesses. “We are like the local Red Cross without the red tape, “she said teaching a class of high school students , “ we make sure every person has knowledge and training so that if there is another natural disaster, we will be prepared. “
|Carine Clermont & Melanie ( credit: Mark Rogers )|
Although many speak French and a bit of English, it is Creole that can be heard everywhere with two colorful two expressions the locals like to share when describing Haiti’s firm resolve to stand on its own two feet. “Piti piti, zwazo fè nich” translates to ‘Little by little birds build their nests’ and ‘Anpil men chay pa lou’ literally means ‘Many hands make a load lighter.’
The Pride of Petion-Ville
The first U.S. branded full-service hotel to open in Haiti in fifteen years, and the second high profile property to open in the past six months following the Royal Oasis, owned by the Spanish firm Occidental, Best Western Premier Petion-Ville opened in April. In the suburb of Petion-Ville, named after former President; Alexandre Petion, the seven-story hotel is liberally laced with security guards, both uniformed and plain-clothed, keeping everyone they deem not suitable out. All part of everyday life in Haiti where the unemployment rate hovers between 65 and 75 percent and 3,000 people applied for the 100 jobs at the hotel. Wedney Rameau was one of them. Formerly a math teacher, he’s now happily serving hotel guests in Le Michel, the restaurant on the second floor. “I had a job but I wanted to do better, “he said refilling a cup of espresso brewed from the beans grown in the mountains, “when the hotel was advertising jobs, I just knew I had to be lucky enough to get one.” Also serving his contagious smile and infectious enthusiasm, he’s happy to discuss his country with anyone who asks. “Yes, we've had many troubles recently but we’re coming out of the hole and I know we will be better than ever. “
|Wedney Rameau & Melanie ( credit: Kathy Casper )|
|(credit: BW International)|
|(credit: M. Reffes)|
The only non-Haitian employed in the hotel, general manager Ronald Maidens has worked in the hospitality industry for decades including in Switzerland, Puerto Rico and at the Stanhope in Manhattan. “I was, quite frankly, overwhelmed “he said referring to the thousands of people who applied for jobs, “I did nothing else for one month but look at resumes. “ Although the front desk staff and the bellmen are required to speak English, teaching the rest of the staff has been a challenge. “ We are now offering classes to all our staff with the goal that everyone eventually become fluently bilingual in both French and English. “
|Ronald Maidens, General Manager ( credit: M. Reffes )|
Built from the ground up, Dallas-based Aimbridge Hospitality, Haiti-based Carabimmo SA Corporation and Best Western International joined forces to open the property with 106 rooms including three suites, awesome views of the sherbet colored houses on the mountain, Wi-fi access, Oxygene spa, whisky bar, pool, conference room and the French-inspired Le Michel restaurant. "With global support from our partner Best Western, not only will this hotel be a success in Haiti, but it will attract additional investment into Haiti and help drive expansion of the Haitian market globally," said Stanley Handal, co-owner.
|(credit: M. Reffes )|
|Le Michel Restaurant ( credit: BW )|
Designed for the business traveler, the hotel is also targeting the leisure crowd although that is slow to arrive and the local romance market which is starting to book the Grand Ballroom for weddings large and small. "The opening provides critically needed hotel rooms, creates jobs and revenue for the local economy and is a reflection of the continuing progress being made towards the recovery of Haiti," said Mark Williams, vice president, North American development, Best Western International, “this hotel is proof that Haiti is open for business and it will help encourage additional business investment in Haiti."
|Mark Williams, VP Best Western ( credit: M. Reffes )|
|(credit: M. Reffes )|
Designed by the Dallas firm Studio 11 in conjunction with Haitian architects, the hotel is also a gallery showcasing Haitian art. Honoring one of the owners’ late wives who died in the earthquake, artwork can be purchased with proceeds going to a foundation that aids in the rebuilding of the country. Pascale Theard is the art director and meticulously picked every piece in the hotel. “I selected art made from recycled materials like car tires and discarded pieces of metal, “she said, “cushions are made from old t-shirts and the entire floor in front of the spa was crafted from cork from old wine bottles.”
(photo credit: M. Reffes )
With three treatment rooms and four therapists, Spa manager Fabienne Souffrant is optimistic the spa will attract guests to the hotel. “All of the products are made in Haiti from locally-sourced coconut oil and other fruits that grow here, “she says, “our Coconut Bliss massage is the most requested as our therapists spend fifty minutes with each client for a rejuvenating experience that can’t be beat. “The Spa also offers facials, manicures, pedicures and a unique ‘oxygen blast ‘facial treatment.
With an eye to the future, travel agents are invited to experience the hotel either individually or as part of FAM trips which will start in the fall. “We encourage travel agents to visit the hotel by contacting our management company, Aimbridge Hospitality or myself directly,” added Ronald Maidens, general manager. Room rates, per night start at $139.00 through the end of June with Carnival packages offered for July.
|(credit: Ministry Tourism)|
The Bigger Picture
With a goal to ready the country for vacationers, tourism minister Stephanie Villedrouin is targeting three areas for future development including the Caribbean Coast, North Coast and Arcadins Coast. Offering assistance and expertise, FONATUR, Mexico’s National Fund for Tourism Development, advised tourism officials in Haiti to look beyond the product that already exists in Cancun and Punta Cana. "Our added value is our culture, our music, food, history, art and voodoo, our original religion,” said Stephanie Villedrouin, tourism minister.
|Tourism minister, Stephanie Villedrouin ( credit: Haiti News )|
Including the stretch of coastline between the towns of Anse-à-Pitre and Tiburon, development on the Caribbean Coast includes 850 new rooms, with 550 targeted for the historic port town of Jacmel. With a proposed completion date of 2014, plans also include a convention center and international airport.
Promoted for its agri-tourism, the North Coast includes the city of Cap-Haitian, Haiti’s second capital. Tourist draws include the UNESCO World Heritage site of Citadel La Ferrière and the port of Labadie, where Royal Caribbean delivers 600,000 cruise shippers each year. 1,000 new rooms and a new international airport in Cap-Haitian will open later this year.
Forty-five minutes north of Port-au-Prince, the Arcadins Coast will see USD$150 million invested in new hotels, improvements to the roads and natural attractions including the picturesque waterfalls.
In January, Air Transat began offering an air and hotel package that included two nights in Port-au-Prince and five nights on the Arcadins Coast. The Montreal-based operator is also considering a two country program between Haiti’s North Coast and Puerta Plata in the Dominican Republic. “We are extremely proud of the Air Transat tours and optimistic the flights from Montreal will resume in the fall and winter, “said Stephanie Villedrouin, “ we’re currently working with the team at Air Transat to start selling the tours during the summer months so tourists can book a week away far in advance of the cold Canadian winter months. “
With a market that is primarily business travel and humanitarian workers, the tourism minister is determined to change the image of the country from one that is in constant need of international assistance to one that is a vacation destination. “I will not meet actors or celebrities who come here only for aid work, “she said, “I tell them I will be happy to meet with them only when they come to Haiti for a holiday. “
Although the road may be long to recovery, her optimism is undeterred. “We’re rebuilding and repairing, “she added, “we’re open for business and tourism will lead the way. It is our goal that visitors see our beauty, not just our tragedy. That is what we have to market and promote. “
(credit: Ministry Tourism )
Eye to the Future
A 173-room Marriott will open in Port-au-Prince in 2014. JetBlue will begin service to Port-au-Prince on December 5 including one daily nonstop flight between New York’s JFK Airport and Port-au-Prince and two daily flights between Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport and Port-au-Prince. ‘’ With expansion into Port-au-Prince, we plan to meet the demand for quality service to Haiti by offering competitive fares to the large Haitian diaspora in the United States,” said Scott Laurence, vice president, network planning JetBlue.
American, Delta and Spirit offer service from several U.S. gateways. Air Canada and Air Transat also fly to Port-au-Prince.
Get in Touch
www.BestWesternPremierHaiti.com. .877) 897-2523www.visithaiti.gouv.ht (credit: M. Reffes )