HOTELIERS LEAD INVESTMENT CHARGE IN "HAITI OF TOMORROW"
Led by hoteliers, Haiti's private sector is fueling a wave of investment in a country long saddled with a bad rap for business.
BY JACQUELINE CHARLES
PETIONVILLE, Haiti -- Within the elegant brick walls of the new hillside Oasis, locals dine on lobster, sip $300-a-bottle Dom Perignon, then relax in a sleek lounge.
Just outside, the skeleton of an exclusive boutique hotel, featuring a rooftop helipad and 300-car garage, dominates the pastel orange landscape.
It could be a scene out of Coral Gables or South Beach. But it's not.
``I have folks say to me: `You'll never think you are in Haiti,' '' said Jerry Tardieu, 42, the visionary behind the Oasis in this Port-au-Prince suburb. ``I tell them, `It is Haiti. It's the Haiti of tomorrow.' ''
Five years after Haiti plunged into lawlessness, this investment-hungry nation is riding a wave of improved security and relative calm. The result: a renewed sense of investor confidence by an unlikely crowd -- the local business elite.
The hotel industry is leading the charge. Within walking distance of the Oasis, an upscale Best Western is rising, soon to become the country's first new international-brand hotel in a decade.
``We are now willing to invest our money and effort in this nation,'' said Christopher Handal, 36, president of the Haitian-family-run company that is behind the Best Western venture. Often despised for their opposition to the government and highfalutin lifestyle, Haitian business leaders are now joining with President René Préval to recruit foreign investors.
Among those heeding the call: Vietnamese looking to invest in the state-run telephone company and Brazilians interested in manufacturing clothing.
The change comes as Haiti's international supporters, led by former U.S. President Bill Clinton, call on the Caribbean nation to encourage the kinds of investments that create jobs.
``The approach of the private sector, the way we perceive the government, it's all totally different today,'' Richard Coles, a Haitian manufacturer, told an audience of hemispheric business leaders during a Haiti investment seminar at a Miami conference last week.
``Mentalities are changing in Haiti,'' he said. ``There is a new synergy, a new enthusiasm.''
Only four years ago, a surge of kidnappings and violence had the wealthy in the hills of Petionville packing for Miami and Montreal. But in recent months, the area has welcomed:
• The Karibe Hotel & Convention Center. First conceived in 1996 by owner Richard Buteau, it was finally completed in February 2008. Family-owned, Karibe boasts a luxury spa, a lush courtyard and 87 rooms, including a presidential suite designed by Miami artist Romero Britto for its first guest: Clinton.
• The expansion of the Montana. One of Haiti's most well-known hotels, it has undergone several expansions since it was built in 1947. The latest involved replacing the tennis courts with an expansive commercial mall featuring designer shops, a wedding chapel and an infinity pool offering a breathtaking mountain view.
The center of Haiti's chattering classes, the hotel welcomes the competition, said Garthe Cardozo-Stefanson, a hotel co-owner.
``It sends the signal that Haiti has changed directions,'' she said.
• The renovation of El Rancho. Faced with the possibility of bankruptcy, the family of this private home-turned-hotel and casino recently sold controlling interest to a new group of investors. They are drawing up new plans and hope to attract a Hilton franchise. In 2002, Hilton planned to invest in Haiti but pulled out as the country descended into turmoil.
• The Oasis Complex. The L-shaped, $19 million multi-use development was once the site of Haiti's landmark Le Picardie restaurant, which in its heyday hosted Marlon Brando and Walter Cronkite. Builders kept the original brick walls, which today feature the designs of Haitian architect Nadine Hippolyte and are festooned with well-stocked mahogany wine racks. Exterior wood walkways lead past a lush tropical garden to a South Beach-inspired lounge.
The most unique feature isn't the sold-out, high-end office space but the ability of travelers to avoid the traffic-clogged streets of Port-au-Prince by shuttling from airport to hotel rooftop aboard a helicopter.
Travel time: 10 minutes.
Tardieu is proud that the Oasis is blossoming with money from 100 Haitian investors, ranking from schoolteachers to business titans -- ``not a dime from foreign investors.''
``Just look around Petionville and you see how much money Haitian investors are pouring into big buildings, whether they be supermarkets, banks or other financial buildings,'' he said.
Gladys Coupet, Citibank's manager for Haiti and the chairwoman of a presidential commission on competition, said ``there is a determination both locally and from the international community that Haiti has to make progress.''
Although progress has been made -- for instance, it now takes 75 days instead of 195 to form a company -- Haiti still must work to shed its reputation for offering an abysmal business climate.
In a ranking of business-friendly countries, Haiti recently moved up three spots, but it is still 151st out of 183 --just ahead of Tajikistan, according to a recent World Bank study.
The United States wants to see Haiti pass legislation to protect investors and make it easy for Haitian Americans to start businesses in their homeland. They also want to see long-held monopolies dismantled and competition welcomed.
PUSHING PAST BLAME
Haiti's economic elite have long been criticized for looking out for themselves and doing the bare minimum to foster economic development, but that's a bum rap, said Reginald Boulos, head of the National Chamber of Commerce and Industry, a federation of 10 regional chambers.
``The notion that the private sector in Haiti has been on the sidelines is false,'' said Boulos, who is courting the Hilton chain to take over the El Rancho project.
``The Haitian private sector has also been a victim of the instability of the last 20 years and is poorer today than it was 20 years ago.''
He blames the politicians for ``creating such a bad environment for any investment.''
But the new alliance between the economic and political elite was evident last week when powerful Haitian businessman Edouard Baussan and the country's leading shippers used the Miami conference to highlight Haiti's progress. Sitting at the head table: recently installed Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive, who received a standing ovation following his ``Haiti-is-open-for-business'' speech.
``People have started to want to believe in Haiti,'' said businessman Gregory Mevs.
``We've said to ourselves, `We as the private sector have a responsibility to deliver.'