Decades after Club Med closure, Haiti offers all-inclusive tourism again
by Jaqueline Charles (feat. Robert Muggah)
March 20, 2016
Lucio Garcia-Mansilla had long heard about theformer Club Med property tucked along the Haitian Riviera, 123 acres lined with lush vegetation and a mile-long expanse of white sand.
But it wasn’t until decades later — when Haiti’s investment climate began to welcome international brands — that the Argentine founder of Colombia-based Decameron Hotels & Resorts would get there.
As Garcia-Mansilla waited, the property’s fortunes changed, usually not for the better: Club Med, the French resort chain, was boarded up in 1987 as the dual threat of an AIDS epidemic and the fall of the Duvalier dictatorship finished off what was left of Haiti’s once-thriving tourism industry and ravaged the economy. It became a virtual ghost town where weeds and algae replaced partying guests at the swimming pool, and a small maintenance crew kept watch from a utility room. Club Med tried again, reopening in 1997, only to close a year later as the economy tanked.
In 2006, the doors opened again — this time as the privately owned Club Indigo, a beach resort whose patrons were U.N. peacekeepers, locals and visitors from the Haitian diaspora. But it struggled even as it used just half of Club Med’s 400 rooms.
Then came Haiti’s monstrous earthquake in 2010, and after that, an aggressive push by Haiti’s new government to promote tourism as an important way to rebuild the shattered economy. International brands including Best Western, Marriott and Spain-based Royal Occidental Hotels & Resorts and NH Hotel Group signed on as investment opportunities beckoned.
When Garcia-Mansilla finally saw the tired tract in November 2014, he immediately saw its charm — and took a chance.
“From the first day he arrived, he said, ‘I love this property,’ ” Beatrice Nadal Mevs said. She and her sister Veronique Nadal Blanchet own the land and had run Club Indigo with other investors.
Nadal Mevs, who had prayed for this moment ever since Club Med closed the second time, still had a question for Garcia-Mansilla before agreeing to lease the property to him: Could he bring the tourists back to Haiti?
Satisfied that he could, she went ahead with the deal.
In May, Garcia-Mansilla, who had just sold the Cartagena-based company to Latin America’s Terranum Group but remained as its president, signed an undisclosed lease agreement for 20 years with the sisters. The property, now known as the Royal Decameron Indigo Beach Resort & Spa, became a major tourism development coup for the country.
“Many people are interested in coming to Haiti . . . but they were always asking for facilities that we didn’t have,” said Nadal Mevs, adding that the Decameron deal is “a first step in the development of Haiti’s tourism industry.”
WELCOMING SIGNS FOR TOURISM
Five years after former President Michel Martelly and his tourism minister, Stephanie Balmir Villedrouin, launched a forceful push to increase tourism in Haiti, the country has welcomed about 2,500 new hotel rooms and about a 10 percent increase in tourist arrivals annually.
But most of that investment was centered in Port-au-Prince, the country’s capital. Two months after Garcia-Mansilla’s untimely October death after heart surgery, the four-star Royal Decameron welcomed its first guest to its luxury Caribbean-chic retreat — the only all-inclusive resort in Haiti.
The company has properties in nine other countries including Panama, Colombia and Jamaica. It so far invested about $15 million in upgrades and new construction on the Haiti property, including adding balconies and sliding doors to all 400 rooms. New amenities include a second swimming pool, Pétanque (bocce), a golf driving range, mini golf and a kids’ park. About 370 of its rooms have ocean views.
While all-inclusive vacations at affordable resorts are a hallmark of the Decameron brand, they are also a huge part of the Caribbean tourism economy, said Alexander Britell of Caribbean Journal, a website that follows Caribbean travel and tourism.
“All-inclusives helped the Dominican Republic get just under 5.6 million visitors last year,” he said. “A lot of people are just looking for a nice beach and want to be able to go without having to worry about paying extra for their drinks. But all-inclusive works only if you can get people there.”
One way Haiti is trying to achieve that is with tour operators, Montreal-based Transat A.T. and its French counterpart, Look Voyages. The latter charters French tourists three times a week to the Royal Decameron from Paris while the Canadian company operates a weekly charter for resort guests.
“From Paris, you can come to Haiti for a week for 1,200 euros [USD $1,660] including airlift and hotel,” said Villedrouin, who first began experimenting with the tour-operator concept in 2013 and helped facilitate the Royal Decameron deal. “The strategy is to get these brands to come to Haiti and create a new destination.”
Villedrouin said tour operators from the Czech Republic, Poland and Italy have already signed airlines agreements to bring tourists to Haiti with package deals to Royal Decameron for the Caribbean high season, October to April.
“European tour operators are looking for new destinations. They’ve been to Cuba, they’ve been to Jamaica, so where else to go?” Villedrouin said. “Haiti is positioned as the new destination in the Caribbean, and we have to create door-to-door packages.”
Haiti’s tourism arrivals increased by double digits last year; there were 674,501 stopover arrivals in 2015, according to its ministry. But elsewhere in the Caribbean, the numbers are much larger: In the same year, Cuba reported 3.5 million stopovers, and Jamaica had 2.1 million, according to figures from the Caribbean Tourism Organization.
Cheryl Andrews, a South Florida tourism marketing specialist, said Haiti has done well in boosting flights to get people to the country. There are daily flights to Port-au-Prince out of Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Atlanta and New York. American Airlines also flies daily from Miami to Cap-Haïtien, the second-largest city. Insel Air announced that it’s returning, starting Thursday, with a flight from Miami to Port-au-Prince four times a week.
But now, she says, Haiti needs to beef up marketing.
“People need to be reminded that there is a rich history there,” said Andrews, who has represented more than a dozen Caribbean nations in the past 30 years including current clients Trinidad and Tobago and Montserrat. “I just don’t see any kind of general awareness push. I want to pick up Travel + Leisure [magazine] and be reading about Haiti.”
Haiti continues to face substantial challenges of endemic poverty, political uncertainty and vulnerability to natural disasters. Even so, a 2013 study by the Brazil-based Igarapé Institute found that there is great potential for tourism if the right demographic is targeted — the Haitian diaspora, for example.
The Royal Decameron already is doing this. Recently the hotel started an aggressive push to lure Haitians living in the diaspora, which it has struggled to attract. At the same time that Royal Decameron is going after diaspora travelers, it is also targeting the local market, said Christian Roy Fombrun, the resort’s commercial director in charge of sales and marketing. Last week, he was overseeing the filming of a commercial with local celebrities to air over television stations.
Still another challenge for tourism development, says Igarapé Institute Research Director Robert Muggah, is that the country struggles to provide even the most basic tourism infrastructure, although he says the increase in tourists visits and Villedrouin’s efforts are encouraging.
“One of the more significant challenges begins just after tourists leave the plane at the Port-Au-Prince airport,” Muggah said. “Corruption there is still endemic and, in our surveys, is regularly singled out as a reason why first-time visitors might decide not to return.”
The tourism ministry, Muggah said, put in “considerable energy” to open Royal Decameron.
“But there are stories of people being turned away for not having printed out their reservation in advance. Haiti can’t afford to adopt this kind of culture of exclusivity, yet there is a danger the sector moves in that direction,” he said. “If Haiti wants to stimulate more tourism, it needs to build on its strengths and comparative advantages.”
Royal Decameron’s general manager for operations, Fernando Gracia, said there must have been some misunderstanding. While clients are asked to come with their vouchers to facilitate a faster entrance, security also can confirm the reservation by calling the front desk.
Gracia says he understands the push by some to focus on building up hiking, exploring and other forms of adventure tourism — which Muggah advocates. But Haiti can also achieve success with all-inclusive resorts like Royal Decameron, Gracia said.
“Right now, we’re at 100 percent capacity until the end of the month,” Gracia said last week.
Earlier this year, as occupancy appeared to taper off due to the country’s on-again, off-again presidential runoffs, Gracia grew nervous. But with reservations picking up, he said, “things are going very well.”
Gracia said the resort is currently working on other deals to make visitors’ stay more pleasant. Among them is a counter at the Port-au-Prince international airport, where arriving French and Canadian tourists are greeted by a tour guide and whisked onto a waiting bus for the 90-minute ride north to Montrouis, on the Côte-des-Arcadins — widely known as the Haitian Riviera. Transportation from the airport to the resort is also available for others who come on their own and book in advance, he said.
Along the journey, the views are as contradictory as the country itself. On one side of the two-lane national road is ocean; on the other are deforested mountains, stacked with earthquake victims’ unfinished cinder block houses. Street vendors hawk their deals of the day, while merchants in the crowded outdoor markets in the towns of Cabaret and Arcahaie try to flag down passing motorists.
Upon arrival at Royal Decameron, guests are given a resort wristband and a glass of freshly made fruit juice. The lobby still retains its original Club Med architecture and feel, but it has been upgraded with a roof covered in dry palms and wall art made of local iron works behind the reception desk.
During the renovation, more than 100 Haitian workers were employed and 400 others benefited indirectly in making the hotel as modern as possible while retaining a Haitian influence, said Daniel Jadotte, a subcontractor on the project.
“If we have 10 Decamerons, we could create 5,000 to 10,000 jobs,” Jadotte said, standing in the lobby and admiring his employees’ work.
In addition to providing construction jobs, the development has provided steady employment for local people in the service industry. There are 450 hotel workers, and Gracia, the general manager, has a dedicated place inside the property for arts and crafts vendors to sell their wares to the guests.
The company has also organized and trained the region’s fishermen as part of an effort to provide locally sourced foods.
“We check out every fish, fish by fish,” Gracia said.
VISITORS AT THE RESORT
“It’s really a place of serenity,” said Geraldine Scown, a mother of two and Haitian entrepreneur who lives in the capital and regularly takes her kids for a stay at the resort.
French couple Pierre and Netty Brulle agreed. The couple was enjoying a local dish in La Casserole Haïtienne, one of the hotel’s three restaurants, on a recent Friday afternoon. Their plan was to spend one week at the resort, and another exploring the rest of Haiti.
“We know the history,” Pierre said, “but we wanted to see the country.”
With the French making up the bulk of the resort’s clientele, the country’s ambassador to Haiti, Elisabeth Beton Delègue, says the Royal Decameron’s relationship with French tour operators is having a ripple effect.
“With the creation of 700 direct and indirect jobs around the town of Montrouis, this private initiative is contributing to the economic and tourist development of Haiti,” she told the Miami Herald.
Delègue said the initiative by the tour operators to donate $11 per traveler to the nonprofit organization Planète Urgence to fight Haiti’s deforestation is also welcomed. So too are the more than 20 excursions, which are giving “an opportunity for our compatriots to discover the richness, the too-often undiscovered heritage, art and culture of Haiti.”
A SENTIMENTAL JOURNEY
On a recent Saturday, Pascale Hilaire, Villedrouin’s sister, led one such excursion to Haiti’s city of independence, Gonaïves. There, visitors would be introduced to an authentic Vodou ceremony before enjoying a meal at a historic gingerbread-style house in the city.
Hillaire invited several people to join in the adventure, including Beatrice Nadal Mevs and her sister Veronique Nadal Blanchet. Also on the tour was Pinkie Garcia-Mansilla, the widow of Lucio Garcia-Mansilla, who was on her first trip to Haiti to see her husband’s final project.
It was through Hillaire that the businessman had been able to finally make the right contact to come to Haiti to find the exquisite Club Med property.
During the next hour and 15 minutes — in between history lessons by the tour guides — Nadal Mevs told Pinkie Garcia-Mansilla about the fateful November 2014 meeting with the hotelier.
For nine years, she and her sister had run the property as Club Indigo, trying to keep it going by hosting seminars and conferences, and catering to those looking for a weekend getaway at the beach, she said.
Then Lucio Garcia-Mansilla showed up. He saw the small rooms, boarded-up doors and two sisters struggling amid political unrest and uncertainty.
But he also saw an undeveloped Caribbean coastline, warm weather, and an international airport 90 minutes away.
“He said, ‘This property has 400 rooms. We will add balconies and I will make 400 keys,’ ” Nadal Mevs said. “I asked him, ‘Why do you want to come to Haiti?’ He said, ‘Haiti will be my legacy.’ ”
Pinkie Garcia-Mansilla smiled.
“He had a nose,” she said. “He never made a mistake.”