Aftershock of Haiti protests: Best Western shutting down, other hotels temporarily closing

After Haiti’s cataclysmic 2010 earthquake, the country rebuilt schools, churches and its tourism brand. Airlines expanded service and luxury brand hotels, boasting vibrant Haitian works of art, opened while others expanded.

But more than a year of recurring fuel shortages, violent protests and currency devaluation is starting to take its toll as the owners of the Best Western Premier, the first U.S.-branded hotel to return to Haiti in 15 years, announced its permanent closure at the end of this month.

The surprise announcement comes on the heels of some temporary hotel closures and staff layoffs in tourism and other sectors as conditions in the country worsen. Haiti is facing a looming constitutional crisis, four unsuccessful attempts to confirm a new government, a deteriorating security environment and a sixth week of protests over demands that President Jovenel Moïse step down.

Thousands of Catholic faithful, clergy, and protesters joined the march showing solidarity with suffering Haitians and calling on the government to take responsible action that is in the best interest of the country. Rebecca Blackwell AP

On Tuesday, thousands of Catholic faithfuls carrying rosaries and protest signs took to the streets of the capital and other cities in a nationwide march organized by the Conference of the Religious. While the Church has been critical of Moïse, the protest is considered a bold move by religious leaders, who announced that parochial schools would remain closed until the crisis is resolved.

Addressing followers inside the Port-au-Prince cathedral amid chants of “resignation,” and “Too much blood has been spilled. Jovenel has to go,” Archbishop Max Leroy Mésidor called on Haiti’s leaders to listen to the voice of the people and to “take a wise decision to permit people to live as people.”

“People cannot go on any longer,” Mésidor said. “We are fed up.”

With the deepening political crisis growing each day and fanning what the Catholic Church calls “an unprecedented humanitarian crisis,” the economic aftershocks risk hurting Haiti more than the devastating 2010 earthquake that knocked down buildings and claimed numerous lives, experts said.

“The real economy is collapsing,” said economist Kesner Pharel. “The closing of many firms, particularly in the tourism sector, like hotels and restaurants, have a negative impact on the real economy. ... Many people in the fragile middle class have lost their jobs in the closing of many companies that could not survive the crisis.”

People walk past Notre Dame Cathedral, destroyed in the 2010 earthquake, during a march called by religious leaders in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2019. While large groups of marchers sang religious songs and prayed, many also chanted political slogans calling for the resignation of President Jovenel Moise, including “Jovenel must go,” and “Too much blood has been spilled.” Rebecca Blackwell AP

Meanwhile, a contract war between the presidential palace and three private power providers — triggered by the Moïse administration’s sudden demand for payments and threats by a presidential adviser that contracts can be canceled and companies nationalized — risks plunging Haiti not just further into blackout, but exacerbating the crisis.

“The incapacity of the political leaders to solve the political crisis is greatly affecting the new fiscal year that started this month, and could affect the economic growth for 2020,” Pharel said. He noted that the last five years of political instability have “reduced the growth to less than 2 percent, which is too weak to reduce poverty in the population.”

More than 600 Haitian works of art adorn the upscale Best Western Premier in Petionville. Designer Pascale Théard worked with more than 100 Haitian artists to create its art, furnishings and accent pieces. But the Best Western Premier announced it is shutting down amid Haiti’s economic and political crisis. Jacqueline Charles Miami Herald Staff

Christopher Handal, the president of Carabimmo SA, said the decision to close and terminate its franchise with Best Western International was “a financially wise decision” that took a lot of courage.

“It saddens all of us to see that we have to send almost 100 people home. However, we could not hold on any longer,” Handal said about the hotel located in the upscale suburb of Petionville. “Since July 2018, we have been struggling to stay open due to so many riots going on, on almost a weekly or monthly basis. When the USA put the travel [warnings] to level 4, it also discouraged all tourists, any foreigner or diaspora, to travel to Haiti.”

Designer Pascale Theard, who worked with more than 250 artisans and artists to design everything in the hotel including the sheets, called what’s happening “a terrible economic tsunami,” that will lead to other businesses closing.

“In September we did only 10 percent of our local sales and this month it is going to be zero,” she said, referring to her own business, which sells handmade leather purses and sandals. “The Best Western, from my experience, was a little example of how great things happen when we, as Haitians, dream together, get together and build together.”

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While Haiti’s economic malaise preceded Moise’s Feb. 7, 2017, inauguration, it has deepened during his 32 months in office through a series of economic missteps.

First, there was the August 2017 decision to “de-dollarize” the Haitian economy by forbidding the use of the U.S. dollar and making the gourde, the domestic currency, the only official currency in transactions. The decision was eventually reversed, but not before the gourde further depreciated against a strong U.S. dollar.

Then came the administration’s decision in July 2018 to increase fuel pump prices by removing subsidies. Days of violent civil unrest accompanied by rioting, pillaging and the cancellation of international flights quickly ensued. At one point, a crowd of protesters even tried to gain access to the Best Western. When they couldn’t get through the front door, they set a car parked out front on fire.

The widespread protests were soon followed by more mass demonstrations in October and November, and a nearly two week lockdown of the capital in February. The lockdown led to “Do Not Travel” warnings from Canada and the U.S., an Expedia block on hotel and airline reservations and a reduction of flights.

And just as tourism appeared to be making a comeback after an uptick in summer travel, Spirit Airlines quietly canceled its Cap-Haitien service 14 months after announcing its expansion to the city amid great fanfare, and American Airlines announced a reduction to its daily Haiti service.

Catholic faithful participate in prayers for Haiti at Christ the King Church ahead of a march called by religious leaders in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2019. Rebecca Blackwell AP

“I really hope that one lesson that is learned by all Haitians today by this closure is that the country cannot go on living in such a manner,“ Handal said.

Steve Mc Intosh, a hotelier in the northern city of Cap-Haitien, said the crisis “is the worst I’ve seen in Haiti in a while.”

Last week, he announced a temporary closure of one of his two hotels, the Mont Joli. Considered a landmark, the 42-room hotel, which sits on a mountaintop overlooking the historical city, first opened its doors in 1954.

“I have to tell you we’ve been closed for a few months now. We have no clients coming to the hotel,” Mc Intosh said. “Our average occupancy rate is around 62 percent or 70 percent, and we have seen it for the past few months go down to 30 percent, 20 percent and for about a month now we have been at zero percent occupancy.”

Compounding the hotel’s economic woes, Mc Intosh said, has been the inability to get diesel over the past three weeks. Forced to ration fuel, some hotels have been turning away guests because they don’t want to turn on generators and operate at a loss.

Meanwhile, there is no propane available for cooking anywhere in the city and a lot of businesses have had to put their staff on unpaid leave.

“They don’t have any food, any water, any propane gas, so the people are getting angrier and angrier every day,” Mc Intosh said. “People are really angry and frightened.”

Mc Intosh said his decision to close the Mont Joli came after a crowd showed up at the hotel and someone threatened his security guard with a machete. Prior to that, protesters had destroyed all of the windows in the restaurant at his other property, the Roi Christophe, which is located next to a police headquarters and jail.

Two weeks after the restaurant incident, protesters covered the parking lot with charred glass bottles. The final straw, Mc Intosh said, was last week’s machete incident.

“We have protests happening almost every day,” he said.

The repeated protests, which have turned violent at times, are creating what some believe is the second biggest shock after the quake.

Bertrand Buteau, whose family owns the Satama hotel in Cap-Haitien and three others in Port-au-Prince, said the Satama remains open “even though we don’t have customers.” His brother Richard, who runs the Karibe in Petionville, said their other properties are also functioning but with a reduced staff.

“Some hotels in the provinces have been suffering a lot from the effects of the road blockages ... and are closing down temporarily until things get back to normal,” Richard Buteau, a former president of the Haiti Tourism Association, said.

Thousands of Catholic faithful, clergy, and protesters joined the march showing solidarity with suffering Haitians and calling on the government to take responsible action that is in the best interest of the country. Rebecca Blackwell AP

Businessman Fred Beliard said the occupancy at two of his properties in Cap-Haitien is less than 10 percent while his Habitation Jouissant, located not far from the Mont Joli, is temporarily closed due to the crisis.

Along the coast, the all-inclusive Royal Decameron Indigo Beach Resort & Spa on the Côte des Arcadins in Montrouis says it’s still open although it has reduced the staff by half and only nine of the 400 rooms are occupied due to roadblocks cutting the hotel off from both Cap-Haitien and Port-au-Prince.

“We have been here since 2015 and we are doing everything to make it work,” said Fernando Gracia, the property’s general manager for operations. “We are doing everything to stay and help the community and tourism in Haiti.”

Frantz Duval, editor of Le Nouvelliste newspaper, said while the closure of the Best Western Premier is a catastrophe and a dent on the image of Haiti, it is only the tip of the iceberg. Everyone, he said, is worried about the future of the country while the “politicians of all stripes play Russian roulette with the country.”

In a tweet, Foreign Minister Bocchit Edmond, who is acting tourism minister, said he was deeply saddened by the decision of some hotel investors to close their doors, which has resulted in the loss of several direct and indirect jobs.

“Our dear Haiti is the only loser,” he said.

Jacqueline Charles has reported on Haiti and the English-speaking Caribbean for the Miami Herald for over a decade. A Pulitzer Prize finalist for her coverage of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, she was awarded a 2018 Maria Moors Cabot Prize — the most prestigious award for coverage of the Americas.