An interview with Dominique F. Carvonis on the trends, challenges, and solutions for Haiti's hospitality industry.
Dominique F. Carvonis is a well known hotelier and tourism consultant with over 30 years of hospitality experience in multicultural environments, particularly in the Caribbean and Latin America. Mrs. Carvonis is the President of the Board of Directors of MAC SA and the major shareholder of this corporation that owns Visa Lodge Hotel. Dominique Carvonis is also the co-owner and a member of the Board of Directors of Moulin Sur Mer Hotel.
Mrs Carvonis has also served as consultant to the Ministry of Tourism.
How would you describe the state of the hospitality industry right now?
Growing. In view of the fact that Haiti has been off the map, so to speak, since at least 1986, you do not have the typical tourism country. In fact, there are no typical tourists in Haiti, no typical people that come for leisure. This is almost inexistent today. But now, the Ministry of Tourism, with a very dynamic minister, is trying to change that paradigm to show that Haiti is interested in welcoming back tourists to Haiti by using the resources that we have in the hotel industry to attract local Haitian tourists, as well as the Diaspora.
The Diaspora is the major key market that the Ministry of Tourism is targeting for the short term. It will most probably lead to more extensive international tourism in the future, but it's more regional now and they are focusing on the small islands around, such as Martinique and Guadeloupe. We recently had the first group of tourists that arrived in Haiti from Guadeloupe after an effort that we did. For the last eight months we've been working diligently to get tourists from the French speaking islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique because they are located close to Haiti, they are islanders with the same interest as Haitians, they love music, and they love the authenticity that Haiti has. Most probably they were very satisfied with their first visit to Haiti, and hopefully they will trigger others to come and experience it.
Do you think the hospitality industry is ready to receive new tourists to Haiti?
It is an ongoing effort. There are new hotels coming in: Best Western is about to open, the Karibe is adding 100 more rooms, Kinam is adding 100 more rooms, Montana is working towards adding 100 more rooms, and El Rancho Hotel is opening again. El Rancho has 36 rooms; they closed after the earthquake and now they are re-opening with about 70+ rooms. Royal Oasis by Occidental is opening soon with 135 rooms. These are all efforts to respond to the need for increased lodging, but also to respond to the need for improved hospitality standards.
The ministry and the Hotel Association of Haiti (Association Hoteliers d'Haiti) are working together on different training programs through the hotel school, and reinforcing the existing hotel school with other universities’ programs. It's a long and ongoing process. People are very much aware that there is a need for better service and better training for the employees.
Even the architecture of many of these hotels was not necessarily done to proper standards. More and more hoteliers are raising their awareness and recognizing the fact that if they want to cater to the international clientele, they will have to do something to improve the services of their hotels.
What are some of the things that the Haitian-owned hotels should pay attention to in order to be more competitive?
The service is definitely something that will need to be improved. A key problem in Haiti is the lack of human resources, particularly the lack of mid-level managers.
Not to excuse, but to explain what happens with these hotels so we can understand.
The hotels in Haiti are faced with daily operational challenges that hotels in modern societies do not have to deal with on a consistent basis. For example: because of the lack of infrastructure, hoteliers need to consider their own sources of electricity, their own sources of water, and their own sources of communication.
They are so encumbered by these daily infrastructural problems that they end up with no funds nor the mindset to focus on doing more marketing, more development, and more training. In all, it is a combination of lack of knowledge, lack of time, and lack of funds. This is really what we see as a problem in Haiti today with the local hoteliers and operators. It is a big challenge to work in Haiti.
To top it all, the incentives are limited. Today, for example, we see that borrowing money in Haiti is a very difficult task, however, it's improving.
Somehow, to be able to progress, you will either have to associate yourself with international brands, or you would have to pay more attention to details and invest money in infrastructure upgrades to give a very personalized service, which will be a product differentiation.
What are some of the efforts being made to attract the Diaspora to visit Haiti more?
There is no coordinated effort yet. This is probably the next step. Individual efforts are being done. The Minister of Tourism is talking with the airlines. For example, she has approached a particular airline to see if they can airlift six different charted planes within six months to try out and see if there is a response to that.
Many Haitians in the Diaspora want to come but air transportation is a major issue. If you don't have proper air transport and travel packages that go along with that, then you will not have visitors.
So, on one hand, the first thing to work on is your due diligence to improve your product. On the other hand, offer travel packages that include airfare to attract selected visitors to Haiti, of which the Diaspora is a big part.
Having an accompanied business is also a way to go. Meaning, from the moment a person steps out of that airplane to the moment the person leaves Haiti, there is someone accompanying him or her. That's the only way I think that we can develop tourism in Haiti right now, with a very personalized service. The infrastructures are weak so you cannot take the risk of just telling people, "Ok, come to Haiti and just move around." What you can do is tourism corridors where you take the person and hold their hands from the moment they arrive. You can organize tour packages, but also visits to experience the authenticity of the country in areas outside of Port-au-Prince, as well as some perimeter visits within the Capital.
We have to start somewhere. If we don't start somewhere, we will not be able to wait for the government or for the country to improve. People often say, "I'll wait for the country to improve to go back to Haiti". That's not how it is going to improve. We have to roll up our sleeves and start working if we want to change something in the country.
One of the concerns many potential tourists and even the Diaspora still have about traveling to Haiti is insecurity. What is your opinion on this?
When people talk about insecurity, they think of Haiti. But it's not about Haiti. You have insecure moments within Port-au-Prince, and it's not even all of Port-au-Prince. There are three out of 10 million people living in Port-au-Prince; you can imagine the pressure on one city. But we are not in the list of insecure countries. Nor are we in the list of crime countries. We don't have the level of crime that other countries around us have but enjoy a lot of tourism, such as Jamaica or Mexico. They are insecure islands, but you don't have that problem in Haiti. It's a perception of poor image.
What can be done to boost the tourism industry?
The master plan that was done in 1996 was never implemented. That's where the World Tourism Organization has promised to help: to start a strategic master plan to accompany the government in viewing the vision for the development of Haiti, a vision for development of areas such as the North of Haiti. It will most probably be the first targeted area because there is a new international airport in the North, the Citadelle Laferrière landmark, where Royal Caribbean take tourists to, and all the rich cultural aspects of the North. There is the new Caracol industrial park development, and the proximity to the Dominican Republic is another reason.
You see all these things that are already working for the Northern part of Haiti. Now you have a master plan to properly develop that region and choose the areas where you will have tourism development, along with the rest of the government.
It cannot be a single ministerial thing, but an intra-ministerial thing where the ministry of tourism leads the path and the other ministries will have to collaborate to make sure that it happens.
One of the handicaps Haiti has is a limited number of quality hotel rooms. You have an issue there, and of course hygiene. People are willing to come, but they want a clean experience.
If we manage that part of the hygiene, plus give a minimum of standards, then people will accept. As long as people know that in advance they will live the experience, they will want to live the authenticity and accept it. We need to have those two key elements taken care of.
And of course the image of Haiti abroad will have to change
For that image to change you have to show examples. You have to start somewhere, you have to start showing that you have travel packages, you have to start showing that you have air transportation capability now to receive tourists. Of course you have to have marketing measures.
If you don't do anything to start showing, not just saying, but showing that you are changing, people will not understand. That's why the new logo of the Ministry of Tourism says, "experience it". People will have to come and experience it themselves, that's the only way that people will start changing the image of Haiti.
You have to offer something that is appealing to at least a minimum group of people and that's the Diaspora. That's our logical first clients, people who are already aware of who we are, want to come home, want to be part of it, but require a minimum of investment to be able to make them feel at ease. They want to have that issue addressed.