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West Africa’s Donald Trump?

Recession—what recession? In Ghana more than $120 million is being poured into a plush hotel in a wild and growing economy.

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The gray concrete slabs dominating a construction site, a stone’s throw from Kotoka International Airport, don’t look like much right now. By June, they’ll be the foundation of the first Marriott Hotel in sub-Saharan Africa—a symbol of the progress of Ghana’s economy. A brand like Marriott “will put Ghana on the map”, says Nii Ampa-Soware, chief of research at Databank in Accra, who says he “would not be surprised” if other luxury global hotel brands like Sheraton are already planning their own entrance, seeing Marriott as an example of the success to be had in Ghana. “It cements the country’s position within a certain class. Having those international brands gives the country a sense of credibility that it has ‘arrived’.”
It’s the baby of 62-year-old entrepreneur Eissame Halabi-Ahma, who was raised in Damascus and educated in Scotland. He owns half of African Hospitality Ltd (AHL) and has spent 11 years on the Marriott project.
The half-Ghanaian, half-Syrian son of a textile factory owner, he lives near the site in a home overflowing with expensive Persian rugs.
Speeding through the streets of the capital in a sleek BMW, clad in a flowing Arab robe, Halabi-Ahma describes Ghana—the continent’s fastest-growing economy, with government predictions of a 14.5% GDP growth in 2011—as the “Wild Wild West”, a place where any businessman with vision and capital can make a fast return.
While South Africa’s hotel industry suffers from oversupply in the wake of the 2010 World Cup, an influx of business travelers into Ghana has created the opposite. More than 800,000 visitors came to Ghana in 2010 and this year, that number is expected to rise.
Halabi-Ahma estimates a shortfall of 10,000 hotel rooms.
“There’s been a tremendous growth in the hospitality sector in Ghana in recent years,” says George Ayittey, a Ghanaian economist and author. “Oil and gas discovery, a daily non-stop flight service from North America and turmoil in neighboring countries have contributed to the tourism boom. So has Ghana’s political stability, especially as compared with government dysfunction and poor social services in the rest of West Africa.”
The Marriott, which will have cost $120 million to develop by its opening day, is the first major project under African Ventures, a subsidiary of AHL, and its equity value is put at nearly $200 million.
Halabi-Ahma says he’s looking for the Marriott to turn a profit of $200 million within 10 years through 221 rooms and a casino.
A self-made entrepreneur who came to real estate and hospitality development late in the game, Halabi-Ahma is a risk-taker who forewent a university education to follow his father into the textile business.
At one point, he tried his hand at rice farming and lost his entire $2 million investment. In 1981, he was left bankrupt in the aftermath of a military coup and sought a new venture.
“I was always looking at Howard Hughes, how he had to fight to succeed,” he says. “If I’d had the knowledge I have today, 40 years ago, I’d be the richest person in the world.”
He focused on real estate development, scooping up cheap land and watching it appreciate. Then there was a fortuitous meeting with a friend, who suggested he try his hand at hotels. As foreign investment swelled, business—and businessmen—poured into Ghana. But those who landed at Kotoka faced a dreary landscape of guesthouses and supposedly brand-name accommodation luxurious for Accra but considered budget-class in the West, ill-run and in need of facelifts.
“I would never have believed Ghana would be what it is today,” Halabi-Ahma says. “People are waking up. Chinese, Koreans, Lebanese, Americans. Ghana has opened up, the whole place has become a magnet.
When you go to Johannesburg, you see 10 people standing by the side of the road doing nothing. You come here, you see everyone running and selling by the side of the road. People want to work.”
On a rainy August morning, not far from his home, Halabi-Ahma strolls the warren that is the Marriott building site, currently at 80% completion. More than two weeks into the Ramadan fast, he’s weak but climbs five flights of stairs with ease to a hall of rooms with glass-walled showers and bold red-orange finishes designed by Cape Town designer Les Harbottle.
Standing near the lip of the building, he admires the view. As the urban sprawl below continues to grow and stretch, his business—bolstered by his crown jewel—will look to keep up. Halabi-Ahma is looking to put a substantial amount of his return-on-investment from the Marriott into developing other hotels in the city, along with Radisson projects in Benin and Guinea. With his showman’s flair” and the casino site below us, it’s not hard to imagine him as West Africa’s Donald Trump.
He’s interrupted by a plane roaring overhead on its way out of the nearby airport. Accra is the rare city where proximity to the airport signals prestige—and safety for travelers more accustomed to European boardrooms than West African highways. Down the street, a dwarfed Holiday Inn—which stands to lose a healthy chunk of its business to the Marriott—seemed to shudder.

Too Much Room At The Inn

The boom days of the World Cup are over and across South Africa the hotel industry is facing closures and reality. The Grace Hotel, in the smart Johannesburg suburb of Rosebank, is the latest of many to close.
The average occupancy rate of South Africa’s hotels is hovering around 48%, leaving a massive oversupply. Other hotels that have had to shut their doors in Johannesburg and Cape Town: the Alphen Hotel, Hotel Le Vendome and the Green Dolphin. The Southern Sun Grayston and the Lakes Hotel are to close by the end of the year.
There are just too many hotels in Africa’s biggest economy. The reasons: ambition and pride. When FIFA named South Africa as the host of the 2010 World Cup, the wheels started turning. There was money to be made. Millions of visitors needed a place to stay and hotels mushroomed.
The signs were good. According to a report by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), overall spending in the hospitality industry grew by 16.7% to $1.9 billion in 2010. The number of overnight foreign visitors grew by 15.1%, while domestic visitor numbers grew 14.3%, giving a total of 15.33 million visitors in 2010.
A year later, most of these visitors have gone and revenue has collapsed.
African Sun Limited has blamed the closure of The Grace Hotel on fewer travelers, escalating costs and the recession. The company declared a $1 million loss in the first half of this year and blames the surplus of rooms.
The strength of the Rand hasn’t helped, making South Africa more expensive for foreign visitors.
The future looks a little brighter, with numbers expected to improve.
“The market will definitely pull through; it’s just a question of how long it will take. It’s going to be a tough two years, but the following three will be very interesting,” says Brett Dungan, CEO of the Federated Hospitality Association.

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