Interview with Philippe Saint-Cyr of the American Chamber of Commerce in Haiti

By: Caribbean Journal Staff - December 9, 2011

By Alexander Britell

Investors and stakeholders met yesterday in Miami for the Inter-American Development Bank’s Haiti Reconstruction Investment Forum to take a look at the range of economic opportunities and the progress of rebuilding in Haiti. One area seen as having particular potential for growth is the tourism sector, which has already seen a wave of growth in the last year. Helping to lead that charge has been Philippe St Cyr, Executive Director of the American Chamber of Commerce in Haiti. To learn more, Caribbean Journal talked to Saint Cyr about the progress of reconstruction, the growth of tourism in the country and the role of the Diaspora in rebuilding Haiti.

What are you seeing in the progress of reconstruction in Haiti?

There’s a lot happening. You have some government buildings that are being rebuilt, the Parliamentary building was just opened, and talks are already beginning for a temporary palace — that started this week. And a lot of roads have been rebuilt, a lot of people have been placed back in their homes that were taken out from tents in the Petionvile area, about 10,000 people already, and they’re going to probably eliminate one tent camp in Place Boyer in the next two weeks. So it’s gradually happening. In the private sector, those that were affected by the earthquake are rebuilding on their own, because they were insured, so the reconstruction is happening. As far as the downtown [Port-au-Prince] area, it hasn’t really rebuilt yet overall from a private sector perspective.

What are you seeing in the tourism sector?

In the tourism sector, they’re going all out. You have over 10 to 12 new hotel projects being built right now. One just opened last week, the Servotel near the airport. The Best Western is pretty much 30 percent completed. You have another project in the Kinam Hotel. The Villa Creole will rebuild 50 rooms destroyed by the earthquake. Montana is open but not a hotel yet – they plan to build not only hotel rooms but [units for] extended stay customers. So it’s happening. But there weren’t many hotels that were destroyed in the downtown area, they were mostly in the Petionville area.

Is there a greater focus on tourism in Haiti than before?

They just hired a new minister, and she’s very, very dynamic. She was working with the association of tourism, so she knows very well the plans of the government as far as incentives and touristic zones. She was working in a hotel herself a couple of years back, so she has a much better sense of the product, and the government is really going full steam ahead as far as pushing this industry. In Jacmel, there’s a project for 44 hotel rooms. It’s an American from Florida [Michael Capponi]. So that will open up other people to come up to the sector in Jacmel. In Cap Haitien, Royal Caribbean invested tremendously in the port of Labadie, one of four ports in the Caribbean that can accommodate these really big ships. So the point is to link these passengers from Labadie, not only to the city, but also to the ruins. But tourism is a real estate product, kind of like South Beach, so once you have developers that come in and redo the whole city, so you have stores that cater to tourists rather than just locals, you have a better product. But that’s a long-term transition.

We’ve looked at the trend of so-called “Diasporic tourism” throughout the Caribbean. Does that occur in Haiti?

It’s been happening, it just hasn’t been covered by the press. Every city in Haiti has a party – one day a year. Last week was in Hinche, La Fete Patronale. So they had a party and a fair. Cap Haitien also has a birthday – there’s even a book that was published a month ago about all the parties throughout the cities. And in the Diaspora, if someone is from one of those cities, they will fly from the US and go there for the party. Every city has its own party. Saut-Mathurine, which has the biggest waterfall in Haiti, has its own party. You go there, and it’s a huge party – everybody’s dressed in white, and of course, there’s a voodoo-type ceremony. But there are no hotels there, and yet the city is packed – you’re talking about 10,000 people. So there’s diasporic tourism, but it’s just not being covered, and it’s not being marketed. But they all know when the parties are taking place, and when the cities are going to have a party, and they all go back.

What role can the Diaspora play in rebuilding the economy?

They’re not playing a big role now, but they can play a large role. They’re pretty much the x-factor. Because they are the middle class of Haiti – there’s no middle class in Haiti. Where the middle class is, is the Diaspora [in the United States]. Because they’re making $30,000, $40,000, $50,000 a year, and it’s in US dollars. So if you take the credit from the Diaspora, or the investment potential from the Diaspora, they could redevelop a city fairly quickly. It just hasn’t happened to get them all together as one group to invest in large products, rather than just investing individually in one hotel and one restaurant, and having no experience managing that, and they end up losing money, for whatever reason. But they’re the x-factor for investing in the outskirts of the country, given that the banks do not lend in those cities. So they can play a very integral role. It’s just a matter of educating them on how to look at the bigger picture.

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