Tapping into Haiti’s potential

We’ll never forget our first impression of post-earthquake Haiti, when piles of rubble buried entire stretches of Port-au-Prince. Pulverized homes and impassable streets became chilling symbols of a nation’s physical and economic collapse.

Three years later, most of that debris has been removed from the capital’s roads, and with it have gone many of the social and structural obstacles to Haiti’s emerging markets. For foreign investors with integrity and foresight, the indomitable Caribbean country is open for business. This includes a new Marriott hotel that broke ground within the past few weeks.

Following the earthquake, tourism was the last thing on our minds. As Haiti counted casualties, South Florida Marriott hotels became solemn sites of song, prayer and mourning for more than 1,000 Haitian associates. The tally of family members lost climbed into the double digits for several grief-stricken employees at a Marriott resort in Ft. Lauderdale.

As the associates pushed onward with their lives, they provided Marriott’s leadership with more than just inspiration — they also had a solution. “Build it in Haiti,” they urged. Ever forward-looking, they introduced the idea of helping the nation’s beleaguered economy by bringing Marriott’s brand — and thus much-needed jobs, skills training and tourism — to Port-au-Prince. And we will.

Just last month, construction began on Digicel and Marriott’s $45 million, 175-room joint venture in the capital’s Turgeau section. Expected to open in early 2015, it will bring Haiti its first Marriott and four-star branded hotel.

Such undertakings are needed to boost the tourism infrastructure of a country that lost not only homes and schools in the rubble, but also accommodations for the foreign leaders and investors who can help build them back. We want our hotel to shine as a beacon for other companies seeking an opportunity to build up their business and rebuild a nation.

As Haiti’s largest employer and investor, Digicel is intimately familiar with the possibilities — and challenges — that lie in Haiti’s economic revival, and the company is pleased to see that the nation now offers a viable environment for foreign investors. Here is some advice for tapping into Haiti’s potential while spurring a speedier recovery:

• First, work with Haiti’s government, don’t circumvent it. In addition to a social responsibility, cooperation is common sense, especially with an administration as business-friendly as President Michel Martelly’s. The president has ardently told the international community that the time to invest is now, with incentives including tax breaks and eased property ownership restrictions.

• Second, a successful venture in Haiti is an inclusive one. Incorporating local workers and experts increases the trust and purchasing power of the community. Fortunately, initiatives in place are giving the talent pool a boost. The Digicel Foundation has built more than 80 schools to date, and a reported 1 million students have been subsidized to receive a free education.

To further develop the talent that will move Haiti forward, Marriott made a commitment through the Clinton Global Initiative to create a workforce development program in partnership with Haiti’s tourism ministry. Even before Marriott opens its doors, we will train hospitality workers through paid internships in our other Caribbean hotels and report on the efficacy of existing programs. Research shows that Haiti’s emerging tourism industry has the potential to double by 2022 with wider foreign investment, and through our CGI commitment, we will help generate a blueprint for this growth.

However, accelerating economic expansion in Haiti will take dedication, considering the challenges that remain. A housing shortage, high unemployment, and the threat of cholera have been exacerbated by the exodus of outside organizations that many disillusioned Haitians believe weren’t in it for the long haul.

• Thus, the final lesson: Making good on long-term commitments is key to supporting the stability of a developing nation and the success of any enterprise. The rewards are there, not for fly-by-night ventures, but for big picture investments in Haiti’s future.

We hope foreign investors find inspiration in our endeavor and see that whether it’s a hotel, plant or factory, it makes sense to build it in Haiti. In the world’s most resilient nation, the rubble and obstacles to responsible commerce are disappearing. And so are our excuses.

Arne Sorenson is president and CEO of Marriott and Denis O’Brien is chairman and founder of Digicel.

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