PETIONVILLE — The long-awaited soiree in the middle of the week attracted an invitation-only crowd of 800, including foreign diplomats, local celebrities and Haiti’s well-heeled and politically connected — all of whom had been waiting years for the final reveal.
As they munched on passed hors d’oeuvres and sipped on free-flowing wine, they couldn’t help but notice the bamboo, locally-grown orchids and sexy white furniture that lined the expansive courtyard. Oversized drum pendants hung from the building’s ceiling.
“It’s like being in New York City,” said Dr. Ranley Desir, a Miami cardiologist who flew in with wife Karine.
Nearly three years after it was hammered by disaster, Haiti’s Royal Oasis hotel finally opened its glass doors this week. With high-end shops and 128 rooms managed by the Spanish hotel franchise Occidental Hotels & Resorts, the luxury boutique hotel is the country’s first internationally branded hotel in more than a decade and the first multi-million dollar, high profile, locally built and financed project since the Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake.
“Royal Oasis is a beacon of modernity that we are all proud of,” said Jerry Tardieu, the 45-year-old Haitian entrepreneur who envisioned the project and brought 200 mostly Haitian shareholders together to make it a reality. “But mostly, it is a symbol of what we Haitians can do when we dare to dream big.”
That dream features a 10-level, earthquake-resistant South Beach-inspired building with a $1,300-a-night presidential suite, a yet-to-be-completed rooftop infinity pool and gray and off-white hues. They serve as a backdrop for the tributes to Haiti’s vibrant culture — ironworks, colorful beaded vases and photographs of Haiti’s untapped tourism potential — lining the otherwise neutral-colored walls.
The Wednesday night opening drew not only the country’s president and prime minister, but managers at competing hotels, who toured the $200 and up rooms, and those who regretted passing on the investment.
“I remember seeing the investor’s packet in 2007 and thinking, ‘This guy is crazy. No way is this going to work,’” said Andy Rene, the new head of Haiti’s Investment Facilitation Center (CFI), a one-stop investment center. “I didn’t believe and so I missed the boat.”
Ventura Serra, senior vice president of operations for Occidental, said the project will have an impact in Haiti.
“It’s the new light in Port-au-Prince that is going to show everybody the new Haiti,” said Serra, who now adds Haiti to his portfolio, which includes properties in the neighboring Dominican Republic and Cuba. “It’s a very beautiful hotel and very good location, and it’s built with all of the highest standards of construction.”
Those standards did not come easily or inexpensively. The devastating 2010 earthquake came just weeks after the opening of the restaurant in a similarly star-studded soiree inside its historic restaurant. The quake killed more than half of its investors and created a $6.5 million deficit that halted the project for eight months as Tardieu searched for additional financing.
He found it in local Haitians, who range from struggling school teachers to wealthy bankers, and in the International Finance Corporation and the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund. The latter made a $2 million equity investment that officials said Wednesday aided in the creation of 400 construction jobs on site and the hiring of the hotel’s 350 staffers.
Meanwhile, the project went from $19 million to $35 million after more rooms were added and local construction firm Arcotec Haiti reinforced the hotel shell and rebuilt the quake-damaged restaurant.
The enormity of the project has not been lost on government officials here. President Michel Martelly held it “as a symbol of the new Haiti,” and tourism and commerce ministers touted it as representative of where Haiti wants to go with investors and image.
“The Oasis sends a very clear message that first and foremost the Haitian private sector is investing at home,” said Tourism Minister Stephanie Balmir Villedrouin.
Villedrouin said Haiti will inaugurate 1,200 additional hotel rooms next year as part of 11 hotel projects totaling $161 milllion that a government commission recently approved. The additions are of what was wiped out in the quake. Also, two other international hotel brands — both within walking distance of the Oasis — will open hotels here. The 106-room Best Western is nearly completed and a new El Rancho, operated by the Spanish hotel chain NH Hotels, has set a February opening date. The hotel will start with 72 rooms and 13 apartments and an additional 50 rooms will soon follow, said investor Reginald Boulos.
Also on the horizon are a Comfort Suites and Marriott, which is expected to break ground on its hotel near downtown Port-au-Prince next week. Other local family-owned hotels are also rebuilding or expanding.
As for the Oasis, Philippe St. Cyr, the executive director of the Haitian-American Chamber of Commerce said while it “has certainly created a buzz in the tourism industry, it has raised the bar on what to do. Hopefully, this will encourage investors to go and create other projects.”