Haiti's Hotels Thrive Amid the Earthquake Disaster's Long Aftermath

Haiti's Hotels Thrive Amid Disaster of Earthquake's Long Aftermath
Haiti's Hotels Thrive Amid Disaster of Earthquake's Long Aftermath

The vista from the private terrace of the John Barrymore Suite at the Hotel Oloffson in Port-au-Prince is a vision of verdant hills and a brilliant blue bay, a dramatic postcard that reveals not a hint of the mountains of rubble and trash left over from Haiti's catastrophic Jan. 12 earthquake, nor the escalating cholera epidemic, nor the slums just beyond the hotel's gate.

The suite named for the American actor boasts an open-air, king-size bed draped in mosquito netting, two bedrooms, artisan-painted armoires, high ceilings and lace curtains -- lavish quarters that are the jewel of Haiti's most famous hotel, which served as the setting of Graham Greene's 1965 novel The Comedians.

Up until three weeks ago, foreign visitors were advised against staying there, says the hotel's manager, Richard Morse.

Despite the advisory, the historic hotel, which began its life as a private home and served later as a U.S. Marine hospital during the American occupation, has been fully booked since Jan. 12, when a devastating tremor leveled much of the capital, claiming an estimated 230,000 lives and causing as much as $14 billion in damage. The disaster drew huge numbers of aid workers, journalists, medical personnel and volunteers, all looking for a soft bed, potable water and reliable WiFi.

Some of Port-au-Prince's largest hotels, including the upscale Hotel Montana, were leveled by the earthquake, which shrunk the market and jacked up occupancy rates. "Many hotels crumbled in the quake so those that remained standing had to serve a lot of people," Morse says during an interview on the Oloffson's wraparound porch.

A Year Later, Haitians Still Live Under Tarps

That greater demand is boosting an industry that has been battered by years of political turbulence and natural disaster. It has also inspired dreams of catered excursions outside the city for foreign workers and tourists interested in a glimpse of Haiti's mellower countryside and Caribbean beaches.

Right now, the tourism offerings for foreigners visiting Haiti are fairly limited. Cruise ships from Royal Caribbean International still deliver tourists to Labadee, a private resort port 95 miles north of the quake's epicenter, for a day of sunbathing, jetskiing and rum cocktails. The Maryland-based Choice Hotels International plans to open two hotels in Jacmel, an artists' haven 25 miles south of Port-au-Prince known for its white sand beaches.

In the capital, residents' feelings are mixed about the big-spending foreigners. Nearly a year after the earthquake, 1.3 million people still live in makeshift camps. "The people from the NGOs drive around in their fancy cars and go to Jacmel, while a year later, we are still living under tarps," says Elie Elifort, 43, a community leader of a 4,000-family camp known as Canaan 3.

Opportunities Lost to the Quake

Thirty minutes and a world away, the Hotel Karibe, with its soaring brick-and-marble lobby, intricate iron inlays and swanky bar, is widely considered Port-au-Prince's most upscale hotel. Heavily damaged in the earthquake, it reopened its doors in October. On a recent weekend, foreign workers sunbathed around a swimming pool shaded by eucalyptus trees.

"It's luxurious by international standards, not just by Haitian standards," says a U.S. embassy employee, lounging poolside with his girlfriend, a World Bank staffer visiting from Washington, D.C.

Former President Bill Clinton, the U.N.'s special envoy to Haiti, chose the hotel to host a conference in October 2009 for 300 private investors to encourage a trade and investment mission. It was a high point not only for the Karibe but also for Haiti's tourism industry, said the hotel's owner, Richard Bouteau. "There was a lot of fresh air, a lot of hope, a lot of doors opened, but of course the earthquake shut it all down," he says.

After the earthquake, Bouteau spent $1.3 million for a firm to draw plans to retrofit the hotel to California building codes, replacing the brick and stone structure with reinforced concrete.

Envisioning the Day When Sun and Culture Lure Visitors

If Port-au-Prince's hotels are doing well today, it's because of the city's massive needs, rather than its fine food or tropical weather, but hoteliers hope that will one day change. "There are not too many people on vacation right now, but hopefully, vacationers will start to come and replace the disaster tourists, because that will really determine the future of Haiti," Bouteau says.

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The Oloffson's Morse, a musician and the first-cousin of Michel Martelly, a popular kampa singer and a leading presidential candidate in Haiti's Nov. 28 elections, gets a bit squeamish when asked whether Haiti's woes have been good for business.

He admits though, that, in the weeks following the January earthquake, hotel rooms were so hard to come by that he charged journalists and aid workers $100 a night to camp on his property's sprawling front lawn.

Like Buteau, Morse says the Oloffson hasn't been entertaining many tourists lately. But he, too, envisions a time when visitors come not in response to a disaster, but to take part in Haiti's rich culture, including the exuberant Carnival, the three-day celebration before Lent, and its calendar full of festive patron saint days.

"I don't think the cruise ship should be the focus. I don't think our tourism plan should be taking people who go to the Dominican Republic and come to Haiti for a day and then go back to the DR. The focus should be: What is Haiti about culturally? It's the music, it's the food and it's these religious festivities," Morse says. "Right now I'm just talking about it, but I'm trying to get a president in power so that we can do more than talk."