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Four Seasons is betting it is worth the long journey for guests seeking a new style of expeditionary luxury.

Series: On Experience

On Experience

Colin Nagy is a marketing strategist and writes on customer-centric experiences and innovation across the luxury sector, hotels, aviation, and beyond.

You can read all of his writing here.

Four Seasons’ high-end offerings, like Yachts and Private Jet, have garnered the most recent press attention. However, one of its most intriguing projects is taking place on a distant Pacific island. 

It’s not uncommon for luxury brands to plant their flags in remote locations, but Four Seasons is taking a different approach than others have. It is slowly and thoughtfully establishing its presence in Palau, a part of the Micronesia subregion of Oceania, which some may know from the intense World War II battles depicted in HBO’s “The Pacific.”

The country is a wilderness of over 340 islands, protected marine territory, and a 4,000-year-old island culture. Its appeal lies in well-preserved coral reefs, and the country’s current leadership has been remarkably progressive in conserving them: Visitors even receive a passport stamp where they pledge to preserve the country’s natural beauty. 

According to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, “[Palau] is also the only nation on Earth to have protected 80% of its offshore marine environment.” In 2009, Palau prohibited shark fishing across an area of around 200,000 square miles, creating a shark sanctuary in the process. 

Four Seasons is betting it is worth the long journey for guests seeking a new style of expeditionary luxury. A permanent hotel development is planned for completion in the next few years.

In the meantime, the brand has relocated its liveaboard ship, the Explorer, from the Maldives. And it has moved some of its experienced staff, including diving instructors and marine biologists.

The early guests are scuba divers seeking bucket-list dives at locales like Blue Corner and German Channel. They’ll see fish and reefs unaffected by bleaching and over-tourism. The current operation is luxurious, with instructors and professionalism that create a niche, magnet appeal for those who are passionate about marine life. 

Preserving ‘One of the Last True Remaining Frontiers’ 

But its potential is bigger than that given the unique visual aesthetic of the place, its remoteness, and cultural history. Armando Kraenzlin, a longtime Four Seasons GM and maritime conservationist overseeing the project, described Palau to me as “one of the last true remaining frontiers.” 

The Explorer’s initial operations serve as a balance between creating new experiences for guests and conducting nuanced diplomacy and reconnaissance. Staff are familiarizing themselves with the area, and testing cultural experiences with native Palauans.

This diplomacy will also set the stage for understanding future economic impact the brand can bring to the island, both with job creation and local business opportunities, and making sure practices respect and integrate with local Palauan culture and traditions.

These relationships with local Palauans are key, especially for those who will be employees when the hotel project opens. Dilreng “Dee-lite” Patrick, a Palauan who recently joined Four Seasons, participated in an apprenticeship program at the company’s property in the Maldives to learn the craft of hospitality. 

Kraenzlin mentioned that Four Seasons will continue working with the Palauan government to expand the program. The apparent goal here is to create a homegrown hospitality industry and reverse the brain drain, as many young nationals leave the country at a young age.

Another aspect of this diplomacy is education. Similar to how guests visiting Africa become lifelong conservationists, Four Seasons is investing in on-staff marine biologists to conduct local research and educate guests.

One of the first employees in Palau, Spaniard Oscar Aguilar, conducts nightly briefings with guests after dives, covering topics from marine life to reef ecosystems and conservation. It goes far beyond box checking: The staff are living the advocacy, and invested in making sure guests internalize something about the power and importance of the oceans.

Creating a Model For Tourism Projects

Four Seasons’ insight is that luxury guests are willing to travel farther afield, taking extra flights to find remote, raw, and untouched locations. Many guests now arrive via Taipei on a newly launched China Airlines route, which Palauan tourism hopes will enhance connectivity. 

There is increasing interest from Chinese tourists based on the sheer visual awe of the area, and Wechat-famous tourist attractions like a lake inhabited by non-stinging jellyfish. This social media proliferation, as with the Maldives, does create the danger of over-tourism and will require thoughtful policy and thoughtful approaches from hotel operators to thread the needle.

But the strategy that the brand is bringing to its Oceania expansion, coupled with the learnings of its conservation developed in the Maldives points to a future that can also drive actual jobs and economic development in a thoughtful way. Done properly, it can be a reference model for the future of sensitive, ecological tourism developments. 

Correction: This article has been updated to note that guests are arriving in Palau via China Airlines.


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Tags: luxury, Oceania, On Experience, tourism, Travel Trends

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