|By Jacqueline Charles, The Miami
HeraldMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Jan. 8, 2010--A decade after Haiti's only U.S. hotel franchise removed its marquee from a downtown Port-au-Prince building, the Caribbean nation is preparing to welcome its first international hotel brand.
Choice Hotels International, owners of Comfort Inn, is franchising its brand to two hotels in touristy Jacmel, a quaint seaside town in southeast Haiti known for its spell-binding carnival and viewed as Haiti's arts capital.
Later this month, construction is expected to begin on a 120-room boutique hotel, the Belle Rive, that will become part of Choice Hotels' Ascend Collection. In May, the Cap Lamandou, a 32-room hotel on a cliff overlooking the Caribbean sea, will become a Comfort Inn.
Both hotels are owned by a group of Haitian-American investors, whose 60 shareholders range from doctors to lawyers to engineers living in New York, Chicago and Miami.
"It's an opportunity for Choice to be on the front end of what our franchisee calls the Haiti renaissance," Brian Parker, vice president of emerging markets and new business developments for Choice Hotels International, told The Miami Herald. "We know their tourism industry is going to turn for the better and we want to be a part of that."
The investment by both Choice Hotels and the Haitian-American investors, known by the acronym SIMACT, comes as investment-hungry Haiti experiences a wave of optimism being led by its hotel industry. After years of instability and political infighting the country is experiencing relative calm that is leading to tens of millions of dollars in investments in new hotels, expansions and renovations.
In addition to Choice Hotels, Best Western is bringing its upscale brand to a project in Port-au-Prince, and the Hilton has had boots on the ground as a group of local hoteliers attempt to woo it to two new hotel projects taking shape.
All are happening as Haiti's tourism ministry and international supporters push to make it a tourism destination. The international airport in Port-au-Prince was recently upgraded to include jetways and escalator, Haitian lawmakers just approved a Venezuela-financed plan to revamp the airport in Cap-Haitien to transform it into a robust international facility and Royal Caribbean is anchoring the world's largest cruise ship off its northern coast in Labadee. "Choice opens up the world for us," said Jean-Marie Wolff, chief financial officer for SIMACT. Whereas investors previously were targeting the Haitian-American diaspora, Wolff says the Choice brand means that they can now "afford to think of a larger audience." Wolff said the Belle Rive is part of a $47 million mixed-use development project on 23 acres featuring a marina, tennis courts, 150-seat movie theater and townhouse-style condos priced between $150,000 and $350,000 -- all located inside a gated community overlooking the Bay of Jacmel.
Since its founding in 1996, SIMACT -- Societe Immobiliere d'Agriculture, de Commerce, et de Tourisme -- has grown from six to about 60 shareholders. Based in New York, it has expanded its portfolio from real estate development to mining.
"I'm excited about the potential in terms of what Haiti is going to be in a few years from now," Parker said.
Parker -- who first visited Haiti last year and stayed at the newly opened Karibe Hotel and Convention Center in Port-au-Prince and later attended the grand opening of the Oasis, a newly opened restaurant and soon-to-be boutique hotel -- said he's impressed with what Haiti's independent hoteliers have done.
"You hear all of the negatives about Haiti, political instability, crime, poverty. It exceeded my expectations in terms of what I saw," he said. "I was really impressed with the commitment of the entrepreneurs . . . you can [envision] the Karibe in South Beach. You can tell when you walk in that hotel; it can be in Chicago, Miami. I was really impressed with the hotel's infrastructure."
He was equally impressed, he said, with the still under construction and yet to be branded-Oasis.
Still, there is nothing like a brand to attract new visitors, and access to Choice Hotels International's reservation systems and $175 million marketing budget, Parker said, "creates opportunity for the majority of these independent hotels to . . . help drive occupancy." Would Holiday Inn, which abandoned the nation in 1999 return? "It's a new story with Haiti," said Fred Pierre-Louis, owner of the Plaza Hotel in Port-au-Prince that for almost 20 years was known as the Holiday Inn. "Before it was keep Haiti at a distance policy. Now the idea seems to be to try to get jobs and movement in Haiti." He may consider approaching the Holiday Inn about returning to Haiti.
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