As Haiti Develops, Marriott and Digicell Can Create Hotel Tourism That Builds Communities

This is a warning.

With the help of the Clinton Foundation, Marriott and Digicell will build the first of potentially many hotels in a slowly rebuilding Haiti. Haiti has a long history with tourism and while it has been a significant revenue source, it has also often exacerbated inequality.

Hence my warning.

Hotels in poor countries typically team with already rich locals to create a safe bubble for themselves and their guests, creating physical pockets of wealth within the area. Because of the 2010 earthquake, many of the new tourism projects in Haiti will start from nothing, so they should do it differently this time: Marriott and Digicell should be examples of responsible business and development. This new hotel could be treated like a civil project, rather than a private investment, by creating a neighborhood that’s not only safe and attractive, but accessible to the average Haitian. This could reduce polarization within the target area.

Haiti has a choppy history with tourism. In the 1970s and 1980s, tourism drew an average of about 150,000 visitors per year. This dropped steeply after the "AIDS Scare" in the late 80s and tourism didn’t fully recover until after the 1991 coup. Over the past 20 years, tourism has represented between 12% and 50% of total exports in Haiti, with average annual receipts of $142,500,000, and about 164,000 annual visitors

So they’ve done this before. And now, with only 500 rooms in the capital, Port-au-Prince, Haiti has an opportunity to develop through tourism growth. Often, we stop here and say, “Sounds good, we can help build the economy through foreign direct investment and development of the hospitality industry. Win-win.” But we all know that’s not what happens.

What happens is: Hotels build in favorable areas of poor countries, which they then develop to make them safer and more pleasant for tourists. The income goes to the company and into the bank accounts of already rich locals that helped facilitate and build. In a country with 80% of the population below the poverty line, building another hotel like this can hardly be considered progress.

But instead of classic hotel development and management, Digicell and Marriott could treat this more like a civil engineering or city planning project. Build the hotel and develop the area around it, but don’t develop in a way that economically discriminates. Build parks and playgrounds and other affordable, accessible attractions. Dedicate some of the ground space to affordable restaurants and retail space, rather than just Louis Vuitton and [insert expensive steak restaurant here]. If enough businesses develop similarly, the city might just grow up to be less polarized.

2011 taught us that many people around the world want responsible capitalism and a middle class. Unchecked, we know that unregulated growth in the Haitian hospitality industry will help a few rich families and exacerbate an already polarized country. They can do better.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons