“Everyone has sand and beach,” said Elsa Baussan Noel, tourism adviser to Haitian President Michel Martelly and a third-generation hotelier. “We have a pretty interesting religion mix. We have different music. We have artisans. We have culture.”
Noel was among more than 20 Haitian hotelier and wannabe hoteliers who worked the halls at the two-day Caribbean Hotel & Resort Investment (CHRIS) Summit, which ended Tuesday in downtown Miami. The Haiti delegation was by far the largest representing any one country.
The third annual conference attracted more than 300 hospitality consultants, real estate developers, brand executives, chief bank economists and the biggest hotel investors in the Caribbean. Participants focused on recent tourism trends in the Caribbean, which is rebounding despite the global economic downturn. Demand for new hotel rooms is up, participants said, but they noted that securing financing remains difficult.
Currently, there are 8,000 hotel rooms in the pipeline. And of the five biggest hotel projects currently under construction, two are in the Bahamas and two in the Dominican Republic.
For Haitians, the outlook in the neighboring Dominican Republic presented both promise and challenge.
“Haiti has definitely disappeared from the tourism map. But today, they are talking about Haiti,” said Dominique Carvonis, who was shopping her new 130-room hotel near the Port-au-Prince international airport.
Already, Occidental, Marriott and Best Western have announced plans for hotels in Haiti. But there is room for others, Haitian hoteliers said.
Still, selling Haiti as a tourism destination wasn’t easy, demonstrating the rough road Haiti still has before it seeks to re-brand its image.
“Haiti is an emerging market that has tremendous potential,” said Andy Ingraham, president and CEO of the National Association of Black Hotel Owners with more than 500 hotels around the U.S. and Caribbean. “Everybody keeps saying let’s go to Haiti, but investors are looking for great infrastructure, where the investment can give a return. You can’t build a brand hotel and there is no way to get to it.”
Such challenges were evident in the hallway conversations and private meetings.
“More than ever, it’s a big uphill battle,” said Gregory Brandt, who was touting a beachfront hotel project north of the capital. “Perception, image is as low as ever. Nothing has changed.”
But instead of being discouraged, Noel, who runs a hillside hotel in Petionville, said she remains optimistic. One reason may be that at least two other well-known brands are in discussions to operate hotels in Haiti.