Haiti's Club Med: A resort with everything but guest


MONTROUIS, Haiti -- In paradise lost, the pastel-colored villas are empty, the tennis courts give way to weeds, and a lone woman sunbathes topless on a half-mile stretch of pure white sand.

"We have the sun," says Jean Pierre Luisetti. "We have the sea. If only we could have the tourists."

This is Club Med, a once-glittering playground for hedonistic adults, closed now for nearly eight years because of the bloody ** turmoil that has gripped this country.

Of all the strange sights and sounds of the U.S. occupation of Haiti, none is more bizarre, nor more symbolic of a nation's economic woes, than this: a tropical ghost town by the sea.

Haiti has been so messed up for so long, it can't even do tourism anymore. It's not as if there isn't enough sun and sea around here to delight the most avid beachgoer. But the AIDS epidemic that swept the country in the mid-1980s -- and the end of the VTC Duvalier regime -- demolished the already troubled industry.

Club Med stands as all that went wrong with tourism in Haiti, and all that could be rebuilt.

Where once young singles danced the night away in a disco, there is now only an empty disc jockey booth and an unpolished marble floor.

The swimming pool that looks like a Venetian canal is filled with algae. Three powerboats are in dry dock. The restaurants are shuttered.

L There's even a motorcycle parked in the old TV viewing room.

"I feel sad when I see this," Mr. Luisetti says.

He should. At 36, Mr. Luisetti has worked for Club Med for 10 years, developing a year-round tan while fashioning a wardrobe that consists mainly of shorts, a tank top, wraparound shades, a diamond stud earring and enough gold chains to keep even Deion Sanders happy.

Mr. Luisetti is seemingly Club Med's master of disaster. Base him in the Arab world, and the Persian Gulf war breaks out. Send him to Mexico, and Hurricane Gilbert flattens the place. Put him in Egypt, and Islamic fundamentalists start killing tourists. Airlift him to Sicily, and the mob starts rubbing out judges.

And just when he thought it was safe out there, overseeing the maintenance department for the past eight months in Club Med's warm-weather version of Siberia, the Americans invade Haiti -- which actually might not be such a bad thing for his business.

"I am used to all the problems," he says.

A staff of nearly 100 attends to Club Med, repairing tiles, making sure the plumbing works, even managing to keep a generator running on precious diesel fuel in the midst of the embargo.

"We do all of the same things we used to," said Marcel Urbin, 38, a plumber. "We just don't have guests."

The resort was built for $18 million on 50 prime acres 90 minutes northwest of Port-au-Prince, and officially opened Jan. 20, 1980. Fireworks for the debut party were so elaborate that residents on the nearby island of Gonave called the armed forces in the capital, claiming an invasion was in progress.

For nearly six years, the resort developed the reputation for being one of the more outrageous of the Club Med properties.

Apparently, just about anything went when sun met sand met opposite sexes. But in January 1987, the last bottle of suntan lotion was spread and the place was shut.

Now there are guards at the front gate but no guests.

"If we didn't stay here after the place closed, it really would have been bad," Mr. Luisetti says. "People from the outside try to take things from here."

There are plans to reopen, of course, but no one knows exactly when. After the Rev. Jean-Bertrand Aristide's election as president, Club Med poured $1 million into the resort in anticipation of setting a reopening date. But the military coup and the economic boycott scuttled the operation.

The potential here is virtually unlimited.

Even at its height, Haitian tourism generated less than $20 million a year. There are no Hyatts or Marriotts in the land of the dictators and military leaders. But there is plenty of hope.

A few miles up the road from Club Med, a platoon of U.S. soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division was resting at the Kaliko Beach Club hotel, base of operations for a United Nations international police monitoring team.

Welcome to the newly christened China Beach, where the first safety rule is: No swimming with weapons.

"If the country ever got up to speed, I'd sure be back here on vacation," says Capt. Victor Hernandez, 26, of Jupiter, Fla. "The local people all talk about the way the place used to be."

The soldiers are now set up in tents on the old dance floor, taking up nearly every inch of space, including near the bar.

Under a thatch-roofed cabana, lying next to a boombox, are a half-dozen M-16 rifles. The sounds of the Righteous Brothers echo in the air. Three soldiers float in the sea on inner tubes.

"Heck, if they can improve the water and the sanitation here, they are golden," says Maj. Lee Jorde, 37, of Drayton, N.D.

"People seem industrious and hard-working around here," Capt. Tom Nowak, 37, of Yonkers, N.Y. says. "If that can be channeled into something positive, there is no telling what they can do around here."

Already, the word has gone forth from these soldiers in letters home.

The sea is warm. The sun is gorgeous. Haiti is beautiful.

Meanwhile, at Club Med, Mr. Luisetti and his staff tend to the grounds, waiting for the first guests to arrive.

It could be next month, next year or next century.

No one really knows.

"I don't know when we'll be open again," Mr. Luisetti says. "I hope it happens in my lifetime."

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