A quarter of the country’s people live on less than $1.25 per day. About three-quarters are unemployed or subsist on their own. More than 50,000 people are still living in displacement camps, five years after their homes were destroyed.
When one of the world’s strongest earthquakes in recent years ravaged one of the globe’s poorest countries, Haiti, in January 2010, the images of suffering and the staggering fatalities prompted $10 billion in aid commitments from around the world.
There are signs of rebirth, and one of the most prominent was highlighted Tuesday when Haitian leaders, former president Bill Clinton and actor Sean Penn joined executives from Marriott International and a Caribbean telecom provider in opening a $45 million, 175-room hotel outside the capital of Port-au-Prince.
Tourism, along with agriculture and light manufacturing, is among the industries the Haitian government and international supporters are betting on to drag the country’s economy into a sense of stability so water access, sanitation, electricity and other services can be expanded to rural parts of the country.
Clinton said aid would continue from the Haiti Action Network, put together by the Clinton Global Initiative.
“If the members of that network keep the commitments they have already made over the next three years, collectively they will invest more than $500 million in Haiti to help put people to work, keep children healthy, educate children and create jobs,” Clinton told a gathering of media at a ceremony welcoming the new Marriott.
The international efforts have made some critical improvements in living conditions in Haiti since the earthquake in which 220,000 people died, 1.5 million were displaced and the country’s central government buildings, hospital and port were destroyed or damaged.
Only 4 percent of those forced into settlement camps remain there, according to the World Bank. School participation among children is up to 90 percent, from 78 percent before the earthquake. About 24 percent of the country’s 10 million people now live in extreme poverty — meaning on less than $1.25 per day — down from 31 percent in 2000.
“Haiti has made a lot of important gains, but it’s fair to say it’s still battling with poverty and inequality, particularly in rural areas,” said Mary Barton-Dock of the World Bank.
She cautioned that the economy needed to stabilize as international donations wane: “As aid starts to decline or reduce slowly after the response to the earthquake, these indicators could also reverse.”
The Marriott isn’t the first American hotel brand to open in Haiti since the earthquake (a Best Western opened two years ago), but its investors said it would advance the country’s reputation as a place where Western companies can do business. Haiti’s minister of tourism, Stéphanie Villedrouin, called it “a huge vote of confidence in the future economic viability of Haiti” in a statement.
Built and owned by the Caribbean cellphone firm Digicel Group and its founder, Denis O’Brien, the hotel is to employ 200 people and make use of Haitian-made coffee, soap and produce. Haitian metalwork and papier-mâché artwork will be on display. The hotel’s general manager relocated from the same job at the Paris Marriott Champs Elysees.
Arne M. Sorenson, chief executive of Bethesda-based Marriott, said he agreed to open and operate the hotel after discussions with Clinton and O’Brien. He said he hoped the hotel would serve as an “open-for-business sign” for Haiti but also predicted it would be a financial success by catering to business travelers.
“There is enough volume that I think the hotel will be successful,” Sorenson said. “The longer term question for Haiti is can a tourism market develop of any sort of size. There are obviously some beautiful locations in Haiti and some small hotels, but it is still very much on the adventurous edge to take a vacation in Haiti.”