By Anton Edmunds
Statements by the Haitian prime minister on tourism, a recent visit by the Clinton Foundation highlighting the industry and a session on the subject at a conference held in Washington, DC, all shine a bright light on an industry that many see as a viable source of revenue for the country -- tourism. Perceptions of Haiti as a country of rich cultural, historical and geographical diversity that is “waiting to be discovered” underlies much of this optimism -- though any hype about the upside of tourism rests on one reality -- that success requires long-term political, social, and economic stability. That said if government and industry do the right things, Haiti could indeed benefit from hundreds of millions in investor and development dollars related to the industry.
Historically, tourism has been good for the Caribbean, as countries have moved from agriculture and through light manufacturing into the service industry. According to figures from the Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association (CHTA), travel and tourism was responsible for over 2.2 million jobs in 2011 and over US$26 billion in visitor spending. Tourism currently accounts for 14.2% of Caribbean GDP, and the industry is projected to add some 2.7 million jobs by 2021 and be the destination for over 12% of total investment.
The development of new projects in Haiti along with the rebuilding and expansion efforts by local stakeholders offer the country increased room stock with brand-named projects by the likes of Marriott, Best Western and Choice, bringing much in terms of validation that the market needs. Interestingly, Haiti appears to be succeeding where many countries in the region are failing - in landing these brand-name operators.
Unique product offerings and cultural activities may allow Haiti to market to a large but untapped Diaspora community, even as the rest of the Caribbean continues to ignore their expat communities. The opportunity also exists for the external Haitian community to be an active promoter of the country and its nascent industries. Increased tourist traffic from North America and Europe of visitors looking for a new Caribbean experience is also possible.
To be sure, Haiti has had success in tourism, notably with the isolated enclave development of Labadie that serves Royal Caribbean. There are also less well-known boutique facilities outside of Port au Prince such as Abaka Bay on Ile a Vache and Hotel Cyvadier in Jacmel. Nonetheless, the entry of larger operations and management groups can be very helpful as this brings marketing dollars and increased domicile awareness. In addition, multinationals can also bring training systems and standards that can benefit the industry.
This could however be bad news for local operators that might lose business, and as they struggle with the cost of training, the costs of implementing and maintaining higher standards, and addressing the possible loss of top employees to big competitors. There is also risk that local businesses will become marginalized as it relates to accessing funding and industry incentives, the latter even from their own government as the focus on the outside investors may relegate locals to secondary status. It will be imperative for Haiti’s government to establish incentives for small hospitality operations while establishing national industry standards for the broader industry.
Investment in training programs and the creation of standards associated with this training must be embraced. The same applies to branding the country as a whole and the implementation of a tourism policy that treats large and small players, foreigners and locals, as equals. Government, industry and the development community contributing to projects that benefit the entire industry, such as supporting hospitality schools in the country should be a collaborative effort.
While some of this may involve reinventing the wheel, there is an opportunity for regional entities such as the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association (CHTA) and the Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO) to play a role in supporting Haiti and its tourism development effort, by standing up initiatives that have been successful in the rest of the region. This will undoubtedly require the suspension of disbelief on the part of some of those organizations’ leaders as to the opportunities for tourism in Haiti. There is also space for entities such as the Organization of American States through its Tourism and Sustainable Development Units.
In particular, initiatives that focus on the small hotel sector such as the OAS’ “Caribbean Experiences” and Small Tourism Enterprise Program (STEP) programs that look at marketing smaller hotels can be re-launched specifically for Haiti. Implementing CHTA and CTO programs that look at service and business excellence, training for supervisory management, taxi drivers and tour guides that include site and attraction management can also be positives for the industry in Haiti.
Interestingly, there are areas where Haiti can lead the rest of the region. One is by developing a domestic “tourism and you” campaign that ties each tourism employee to a family and the broader economy. This can ensure that the greater population recognizes how important tourism can be to the country’s economic development. Another may be incentivizing the incorporation of alternative energy technology in the industry – also a branding opportunity for a travel community increasingly aware of their carbon footprint. Finally, there is the unrealized linkage between agriculture & tourism that can provide a distinct “taste of Haiti” but also supports broader economic opportunities linked to agrarian reform.
Ultimately, Haiti still needs to make meaningful progress in governance and recovery efforts. Infrastructure deficiencies that existed prior to the earthquake need to be addressed. An open and transparent investment climate, along with sound policies that assure a level playing field where large and small businesses can prosper alike will be critical for any long-term tourism success.