PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — In a gleaming, tall-ceilinged lobby, guests in blazers, Polo shirts and running attire pass through. Stunning prints, paintings and voodoo flag designs by Haitian artists decorate the walls on the way to the open bar and dining area.
The Marriott Port-au-Prince hotel is in its second year of operation. With a $45 million investment from Digicel, the hotel hosts non-governmental organization officials, journalists, business officials, Haitian-Americans, missionaries and vacationers. Benefiting from its brand name, the Marriott became profitable its first year, according to Stephanie Gibson, the hotel's marketing manager. It employs 165 people, nearly all of whom are Haitian, and has put a heavy emphasis on buying local goods.
Still, demand is less than anticipated. With the opening of two other luxury hotels — a Best Western and a Royal Oasis — and the expansion of two existing hotels in the wake of the 2010 earthquake, the market has ample supply. The political turmoil this year surrounding Haiti's elections has done little to help, and the bookings have also declined as non-governmental organizations scale back their role in post-quake Haiti.
"We are finding they've come and fulfilled their mission of what they wanted to set up, and now they are training local staff and talent to take over what they had expats doing," Gibson said.
The oversupply is no surprise to Richard A. Morse, who manages Hotel Oloffson, a smaller, 20-room gingerbread house-style hotel. With its regular live voodoo-inspired music and historical role, Oloffson attracts travelers seeking a more eclectic and artsy experience, so he does not consider the new hotels as direct competition. He is puzzled, though, especially by the hotel growth in the wealthier suburb of Pétionville.
"I don't know how those places stay open," Morse said. "Why are they building all these big hotels in Pétionville?"
Tourism officials said oversupply is not a concern. After the earthquake, more rooms were needed. For Haiti to rebuild its tourism sector, a strong economic development tool, adequate infrastructure must exist.
"If we want the tourism in Haiti to grow, we definitely have to have the capacity," said Samuel Dameus, spokesman for Haiti's Ministry of Tourism. "We have to be ready."
Even with lower occupancy, the Marriott maintains a busy feel. Guests mill around the lobby at all hours, filling bar stools and tables, and Gibson said the dining area becomes a business hub during the lunch hour. It hosts conventions and parties, turning the pristine pool and patio area into a concert venue.
Gibson says hotel management is optimistic about demand once the political instability subsides. Meanwhile, its staff is perfecting its "Marriott culture" based on strong customer service, she said.
"It's not selling the hotel, it's selling Haiti as a destination, a destination for the right traveler, a destination to come and do business" said Gibson, a Boston native. "We are right in the U.S.'s backyard. It's just getting people down here. Once you come down once, typically people are back in the next eight months to a year because there is something they fall in love with."