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8029: Haiti's once-thriving hotels fight for life (fwd)
From: Greg Chamberlain <GregChamberlain@compuserve.com>
By Trenton Daniel
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, May 23 (Reuters) - Haiti's once-thriving hotel
industry has seen better days.
Searching for voodoo, art and hedonism, thrill-seekers came in droves
to the Caribbean nation two decades ago and used resorts like Club Med as
their experimental playgrounds.
That was before the AIDS scare in the 1980s. It was also before the
1986 ouster of Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier imparted a cruel paradox to
the impoverished country: The brutal dictator was gone but in his wake came
a political climate so unstable the flow of tourists slowed.
Haiti's hotels, which run the gamut in clientele and style, now stand
virtually empty, relying on a mixture of creativity and resourcefulness to
stay afloat amidst a turbulent political crisis that keeps violence high
and visitors at bay.
"My occupancy rate can go from 70 to 80 percent to 20 percent from one
day to the next. I'm more empty than full," Garthe Cardozo-Stefanson,
co-owner of the hillside Montana Hotel in suburban Petionville, said.
"The occupancy rate is based on the political situation. ... How do we
So low is Haiti's reputation as a tourist destination that the island
of Labadie, visited by 250,000 -- mostly cruise ship passengers -- in 1998,
is promoted as part of the island of Hispaniola, which Haiti shares with
the Dominican Republic, rather than as part of Haiti.
Haiti's Club Med, which opened its doors in 1975, closed in 1986, the
year the Duvaliers left Haiti. It reopened in 1995 and then closed in 1999,
according to the Tourism Ministry.
While no official figures exist for the total number of hotels in
Haiti, Frantz Lafontant, a consultant for the Tourism Ministry, said the
country had 1,200 hotel rooms, ranging from those in luxurious hotels to
Most of the resorts are concentrated in the Port-au-Prince area and
National Highway No. 1, which goes to the beaches north of the capital.
There are also hotels in the southern seaside town of Jacmel and in and
around the coastal northern city of Cap-Haitien, Haiti's second-largest
Hotel owners are hoping that President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who
returned to office on Feb. 7, can reach a political agreement with his
opponents, which could free up as much as $500 million in sorely needed
foreign aid and bring back the tourists who once frequented places like
An opposition bloc set up an "alternative government" to challenge
Aristide's authority after international allies questioned the legitimacy
of legislative elections a year ago.
Hotel owners also hope Aristide will keep a promise in his
inauguration speech and economic and social plan to create an additional
7,000 hotel rooms and renovate existing facilities.
The government has shown signs of restoring tourism. It upgraded the
tourism department into a government ministry and renovated the downtown
Champ de Mars plaza as an initial step to refurbishing the downtown area
and bringing back the cruise ships that once flooded the capital with
For now, Haiti's hotels make do with what they have.
For Georges Gonzalez, a manager of the downtown Plaza, that means
grabbing the Haitian diaspora -- one of every 10 Haitians and 65 to 70
percent of his clientele -- and advertising the hotel's proximity to
That the Plaza borders the bustling Champ de Mars is another way to
boost his 45-49 percent occupancy rate.
"We are close to everything," said Gonzalez, who previously worked as
a manager for a hotel in New York City. "We are close to factories. You can
go to the government offices easily. You can also go to the museums easily.
... We have a clientele that are here to vacation, as well as to do some
Like other hotels, the Plaza spends a lot of money to generate
electricity, needed to circumvent nightly blackouts.
Also downtown is the renowned Oloffson, a rickety, gingerbread-trimmed
hotel that a longtime resident dubbed an "anti-hotel" -- a "peristyle where
you can rent rooms." In Haiti, a peristyle is where voodoo ceremonies are
What keeps the hotel afloat is its history and eccentric charm. It has
served as the stomping grounds for the likes of Marlon Brando, Herbert
Gold, Lillian Hellman and Graham Greene, most of whom have rooms named for
Perhaps its main attraction is a sweeping veranda that overlooks a
lush garden. It is a place for journalists, news junkies and odd-ball
tourists to catch up on the gossip.
"It is said that the JFK assassination was conceived and plotted in
room 11," said manager Richard Morse, a Haitian-American who came to Haiti
after Baby Doc's ouster to study and learn voodoo rhythms.
Room 11 is also known as the Aubelin Jolicoeur suite, named for a
Haitian dandy who frequented the hotel and became a character in Greene's
novel "The Comedians."
The Oloffson is the place to be on Thursday nights when Morse, his
wife Lunise, and their voodoo-rock band RAM, play until the wee hours. The
band, and the Oloffson's restaurant, are other ways the place says alive,
Nestled in the cooler hills of Petionville are family-owned hotels,
with the amenities of any international resort: tennis courts, fitness
gyms, multiple restaurants and bars, casinos, and, at El Rancho, even a dry
cleaner and massage parlor.
"To keep swimming, we hold conferences regularly," said
Danielle-Milien Marcelin, an administrator at El Rancho.
The resort, known for a long, narrow tube that greets guests at the
entrance, holds concerts for the likes of Sweet Micky, a Madonna-like
musician. On weekends, foreign embassy officials and Haitian professionals
unwind poolside after taking in the Creole buffet.
Just down the street is Cardozo-Stefanson's Montana, built like its
neighbor during a Haitian hotel renaissance in the late 1940s. Think Frank
Lloyd Wright's Prairie Style architecture -- but with a Haitian twist.
Stately palms and ferns, coupled with indigenous mahogany furniture
and an open setting, create an Eden-like environment. The view is equally
seductive, offering a panoramic vista of almost the entire Port-au-Prince
On days of civil unrest, the guests -- mostly diplomats, relief
workers, and the occasional missionary -- can see black smoke from
protesters' burning barricades rise into the sky.
"We do hope that the government will settle its differences with the
opposition so that we can start working," said the Plaza's Gonzalez, whose
hotel's entrance is scrawled with anti-foreigner and pro-government
graffiti that reminds passersby of Haiti's continuing political unrest.