Belize, a small Central American country with a Caribbean shoreline and dense jungle, is slowly shifting its global reputation from a destination suitable for paradise-seeking backpackers and the occasional celebrity home to a luxury hotspot that provides world-class service with intimate access to nature and indigenous communities.
Within the travel industry, the cruise lines have best taken advantage of the destination’s relatively virgin landscapes with nearly three-quarters of Belize’s 1.4 million annual visitors arriving by cruise ship for day excursions. That’s starting to change with a number of hospitality players from global corporations to individual hoteliers investing in the future of the market and luxury consumers’ perception of it.
Hilton was the first global player to move into the market with the opening of the Mahogany Bay Resort & Beach Club as part of the Curio Collection in early 2018. Marriott International is not far behind and recently released photos of its first Belizean hotel Alaia, part of the Autograph Collection, set to open in 2020. And the Four Seasons Resort and Residences Caye Chapel expects to open in 2021.
Individual developers are also staking their claim. Itz’ana Resort and Residences expects to open later this year. The Coppola family has held onto its private island retreat Turtle Inn while Leonardo DiCaprio is working on a wellness-focused eco-resort on Blackadore Caye that, if rumours are correct, will open in late 2018 or 2019.
As airlines increase flights to the country, Belize is becoming a tropical destination that offers the isolation and beauty that luxury consumers from North America often travel much farther to reach.
For example, the Four Seasons Caye Chapel will be one of very few accommodations in the Americas to offer overwater bungalows that are most often found in the South Pacific.
It is Belize’s virginity however that makes it particularly appealing to a luxury travelers who pride themselves on being the first to explore new geographies or who seek intimate indigenous experiences.
“Itz’ana clientele will be explorers, early adopters who want to be the first to discover amazing new places. These travelers aim to learn and connect with locals and the indigenous culture, and Itz’ana will be the vehicle to make this happen,” Bryant McClain, director of sales and marketing at Itz’ana Resort & Residence, said.
Outside of adventurers, it is the presence of major brands such as Hilton and Marriott that make destinations such as Belize feel accessible to more traditional luxury guests. The promise of a luxury experience as defined by a Western brand gives guests confidence to try a new vacation spot.
“As travelers are now discovering, the destination is accessible and conducive to curious travelers. Brands like Curio Collection by Hilton are helping to bring new travelers to a truly unparalleled destination,” said a Mahogany Bay Resort & Beach Club spokesperson, who was also surprised to see high demand from the incentive group market.
A Case Study in Conscious Development
Belize has a relatively virgin landscape in comparison to other so-called paradisal destinations and with that comes grand responsibilities for any hotelier.
Arrivals are rapidly increasing — the number of overnight tourism arrivals in the month of June registered double digit increases for the past three consecutive years, while the first half of the year registered a 17.1 percent cumulative increase.
There are ethical questions to ponder in terms of environmental sustainability, cultural conservation, and community development when seeking to transform a location and inherently change the composition of its residents.
“It was always part of our mission to give back to the local community and only mirror and enhance Belize’s natural beauty – social and environmental sustainability were always at the forefront,” McClain said.
“In terms of development, we utilized sustainably sourced wood and local materials and employed local artisans to create furnishings. Itz’ana features top-of-the-line wastewater management, rainwater collection, LED lighting systems, solar panels, and an onsite garden to supply the kitchen and more.”
The government of Belize has also become proactive in protecting their natural resources by banning single-use plastic and protecting mangroves and reef from over-development. Governments play an important role in establishing guidelines that all players abide by.
For example, the Four Seasons Caye Chapel aims to net-zero impact and collaborated with the Belizean Department of the Environment to mitigate impact during and after construction.
The resort will include a nature and conservation center, which will work towards the replanting of native flora as well as offer an on-island nursery, mangrove, beach resiliency program and an organic garden, that guests can take part in.
Globalization plays a role in Belize’s transformation from an informal to high-end paradise, according to local developer Andrew Ashcroft whose vision grew into Alaia, but that can be good for the local community.
“Even though we’re doing a big development, we’re doing it low density. The community welcomes the projects because hospitality is their bread and butter,” Ashcroft said.
In addition to environmental concerns, hoteliers must also be conscious of how they are interacting and supporting the local communities near their development.
Treading that thin line between cultural immersion and appropriation is a theme that Skift will be exploring more in the coming months. The hoteliers that we spoke to in Belize are cognizant of the great good (or evil) they can wield.
“In our early stages of development, we worked with consultants to engage the Belizean people to garner their input on the project allowing us to understand their concerns for development of the island. Our development partners have since maintained open communication with the community so that any concerns and updates can be shared throughout the construction process,” said Michael Crawford, president of portfolio planning and owner relations at Four Season.
A spokesperson from Mahogany resort best summed up the ideal intent of conscious hoteliers: To collaborate with the local community to capitalize on the trend of high-end travel coming to Belize.