Coming to Haiti "for business" may seem like a contradiction in terms to anyone familiar with the headlines on this impoverished nation. Nevertheless, last week I found myself in Port-au-Prince for the first ever hackathon in Haiti, hosted by the New York-based nonprofit Digital Democracy. Unexpectedly, this trip was more than a business trip. It was a glimpse into the economic undergrowth that might just be the surest hope for Haiti's future.
Having booked a last-minute flight on points with my colleague Maria, we arrived in Port-au-Prince with no accommodation. Desperate for a hotel with Internet connection near the hackathon venue, we stumbled into the Royal Oasis Hotel in the upscale neighborhood of Pétionville. On my previous trips to Haiti I have found myself under canvas in the compound of a field hospital, or in basic digs in the bustling, downtown dust-bowl of Tabarre. Hot showers were unthinkable, pit toilets the standard.
At the Royal Oasis I saw a glimpse of Haiti's future: a blending of the natural beauty of this majestic island, the laidback local philosophy and modern conveniences. The huge rooms were elegant and thoughtfully designed, with views that stretched down to the blue Caribbean Sea in the distance. Nestled in the entry way of the resort is a charming lodge that is part of the original building, now housing a contemporary restaurant downstairs and resplendent bar and club upstairs. Outside, Koi ponds meet a large thatched roof breakfast and lunch area. Most important for our purposes: free Wi-Fi access available everywhere!
A year or so ago, finding this kind of luxury in Haiti was unthinkable, and perhaps to some readers it is still hard to digest in a country where almost 80 percent of the population live on less than $2 per day. But ask any macro-economist and they will tell you that the surest way to alleviate poverty is through economic growth. Even working in developing countries, do-gooders (myself included) lament the lack of employment opportunities for hard-working people trying to work their way out of poverty and support themselves and their families.
Recently announced by the UN as the "poorest country in the world", the headlines have not been kind to Haiti. One well-intentioned, star-studded initiative after another, has added to the narrative that the country is a cesspool of problems, devouring aid money. There is another story to be told though. And this is the story of a country that is poised to enter the world stage, and take its place amongst the newly emerging economies that are building a foundation for long-term economic growth.
Take as one indication of this promising trend, a new industrial park to be established in the north of the island, which will be home to a massive new Korean garment manufacturing plant. Facilitated by Bill Clinton (UN's envoy to Haiti) this new Korean factory will provide 20,000 jobs, helping to break the cycle of dependency on foreign aid. Gap was a major player in the deal, and both Gap and Walmart are likely to source at least 1 percent of their inventory from Haitian sewing factories.
Bringing together a team of 200 mostly Haitian investors, The Royal Oasis hotel is also contributing to Haiti's fledgling economy by targeting the tourism market. Opening in December 2012, nearly two years after the site was severely damaged by the earthquake, the hotel now employs 180 local staff. We spoke to the General Manager Jean-Marc, who is dedicated to providing his team with intensive hospitality training on running a modern business and leisure hotel. To accommodate the business community, the hotel has some beautiful event spaces -- including two large auditoriums, one with capacity to hold 100 people. There are plans to expand the property to include a fitness center, and the rooftop infinity pool was being completed when we were there.
It is my dearest hope that with more investment projects in the pipeline, Haiti can begin the slow process of building the engine room for economic growth. In the meantime, I would urge anyone on business or pleasure in Haiti who wants to see a glimpse of the future to stay at the Royal Oasis Hotel.