Once upon a time, palm trees, sea turtles
and Carib and Arawak Indians populated a necklace strand of 7,000
islands, islets, reefs and cays that curved 2,500 miles southeast
from Grand Bahama Island off Florida to Trinidad, scant miles from
So many islands, so
little time. Even the Caribbean's first tourist was overwhelmed by
"I saw so many
islands that I could hardly decide which to visit first,"
Christopher Columbus reported to Queen Isabella in 1493.
The choices for
today's visitors are just as daunting, but travel guidebooks,
word-of-mouth recommendations, the guidance of agents, Web sites,
blogs and clever packaging by operators help to winnow the
But what about
where to stay?
With more than
300,000 rooms in 7,250-plus hotels, guesthouses, apartments and
villas, and more opening faster than the price of gas rises, that
decision can be more confusing than trying to decipher room
categories and rate structures. Those totals, by the way, include
45,270 rooms in 471 properties in Cuba.
Throw in an
unparalleled building frenzy bulldozing its way down the sweeping
curve of powder-white, palm-fringed beaches, and the ruckus could
be enough to send those who yearn for the quaint beach shacks and
barefoot beer joints of yesteryear off to isolated stretches and
calmer seas elsewhere.
There aren't a lot
of those beach shacks left, although the Caribbean's small hotels
and inns are a tough lot with fiercely protective clientele who
balk at change and want few people to know where they go "limin' "
-- a West Indies word for kicking back and checking out.
developers are tramping sea grasses all over the region, funneling
huge amounts of money, jump-starting island economies for a time by
hiring lots of local labor, promising post-construction jobs in the
hospitality industry and altering skylines with structures much
higher than the palm trees.
New designs are
emerging. These days, very few of the big hotel projects are just
hotels. The catchphrase seems to be "multipurpose destination
resorts" that contain structures called condotels (condominium
hotels) along with all-suite properties and a growing list of
must-have facilities: casinos, marinas, golf courses, shopping
villages, private residences, villas and infinity pools
Most condo owners,
who benefit from the services and facilities of an on-site hotel,
are more than happy to drop their fractional-ownership or timeshare
units from time to time into hotel inventories to generate their
own revenue streams.
Not everybody is
happy about this construction boom. In fact, the relationship
between developer and islander often is fractious.
A recent full-page
ad in the New York Times by a group called the Waterkeeper Alliance
hammered Marriott and Four Seasons for their planned 3,000-room
developments along Puerto Rico's northeast coast.
The watchdog group
claimed the projects would strip leatherback sea turtles, as well
as 40 native and rare species of plants and animals, of their
natural coastal habitats.
"Marriott is the
management company, not the owner or developer," Marriott
spokeswoman Kess Connelly said, pointing out that the Puerto Rico
project has not yet broken ground.
Connelly also noted
that Marriott pioneered its ECHO program, for Environmentally
Conscious Hospitality Operations, years ago and has garnered awards
and recognition for its turtle-protection projects and other
conservation efforts worldwide.
"The finger is
pointed at Marriott, but we are not guilty," Connelly said. "And
the developer, in fact, already had put forth $1 million for turtle
preservation in that area." The response from Four Seasons was much
Big development is
a touchy issue on several fronts, yet investors, bankers,
developers and owners are rarely turned away by island
More than 300
people crammed into the East End Long Look community center on
Tortola in the British Virgin Islands one night this summer to
grill Hong Kong investor Raymond Hung about plans for an $80
million resort on Beef Island, a smudge off Tortola's east end and
the site of the B.V.I.'s main airport.
government first gave its stamp of approval to the project 12 years
ago, reviewed it last year and signed a good-to-go agreement in
December, some islanders sensed paradise lost.
from consultants and architects regarding their sensitivity to
protecting the environment, residents voiced serious concerns about
the Beef Island Golf & Country Club Resort, which will be the
largest development ever built in Tortola, with a five-star resort,
an 18-hole golf course, a marina, residences, villas and a retail
construction is expected to begin this year with tee-off in two
In the Turks and
Caicos, a stirring of discontent
resonates particularly among longtime repeat visitors who remember
palm trees and dirt roads where there now are seven-story buildings
and traffic jams.
A prime example is
the recent announcement that Vienna-based O Property Collection
will launch (on uninhabited Dellis Cay) a $1.5 billion hotel and
villa project, which the firm modestly describes as "the largest
development in the hemisphere."
Chairman and CEO
Cem Kinay predicted that the O brand would "redefine the luxury
But Is Bigger Really Better?
scheduled to open in 2008, is expected to generate a billion
dollars in residential sales in the next five years.
In its first-ever
report on the Caribbean hotel industry, Atlanta-based PKF
Hospitality Research found that Caribbean hotels continued to be
profitable for owners and operators due to increasing rates of
travel to the region. From 2003 through 2005, stayover visitors to
the Caribbean grew by 19%, to 22.5 million.
have profited from strong increases in demand, which has produced
substantial gains in revenue per available room," said Scott Smith,
vice president of PKF Consulting.
"The region has
benefitted from an increasingly competitive airline market as well
as more airlift to and from emerging and traditional destinations,"
Smith said. "In a new era of Caribbean tourism, the bar has been
raised again, with demands for even higher standards of leisure and
luxury. This has presented hotels with opportunities to create new
streams of revenue."
And bigger and
bigger developments, it seems. But is bigger better?
Pose the question
to Atlantis Resort on Paradise
Island in the Bahamas, and the answer is fairly obvious.
When it burst upon
the scene 12 years ago, Atlantis was the biggest game in town.
Today, it has 2,317 rooms, but that's nothing compared to what lies
ahead for Atlantis.
Owner Sol Kerzner
of Kerzner International will complete a billion-dollar expansion
next spring of his Paradise Island playground, complete with the
addition of Waterscape, which will reportedly be the largest water
park in the Caribbean. The park will have water slides and rides
that will transport guests through tropical jungles, whitewater
rapids and underground waterways.
expansion includes the 600-suite Cove Hotel, a 21-story tower, a
495-unit condotel, two pools, access to two beaches, a fitness
facility and many restaurants.
Throw in 100,000
square feet of new meeting space, the Caribbean's largest casino
(1,000 slots, 90 table games, a baccarat lounge and nightclub), the
30,000-square-foot Mandara Spa, a Dolphin Education Center and a
65,000-square-foot Bahamian marketplace.
expansion has not, of course, escaped the notice of the Bahamas
Ministry of Tourism, whose officials can barely contain their
minister of tourism, announced his intention to seek more airlift
in the next two years and to expand the international airport in
because -- hold on to your flip-flops -- another, even bigger
project may knock Atlantis out of the top slot, even before the
paint is dry and the cement is hardened.
Entertainment and Starwood Hotels & Resorts partnered with
Bahamas-based Baha Mar Development Co. to create what the developer
bills as the largest single-phase development in the Caribbean in
the Cable Beach area of Nassau.
The Baha Mar
Development Co. is a subsidiary of Baha Mar Resorts Ltd., which
acquired Nassau's Cable Beach Resorts & Crystal Palace Casino
in May 2005. The three Cable Beach Resorts properties -- the
Wyndham Nassau Beach, the Radisson Cable Beach and the Nassau Beach
Hotel, as well as the casino -- are in the midst of an $85 million
capital investment program.
Outing Secret Hideaways
Meanwhile, Baha Mar
Development is planning a 1,000-acre, mixed-use resort of 3,550
rooms in four Starwood-branded hotels and the debut of the first
Caesars hotel in the Caribbean since Caesars was acquired by
Harrah's in June 2005.
The first phase of
the behemoth undertaking represents an investment of $1.6
Entertainment is slated to operate a 95,000-square-foot casino.
Construction will begin next year with the first phase scheduled to
open in 2010.
John Pagano, Baha
Mar president, said the project, "which represents a strong vote of
confidence from the Bahamian government and people, will establish
a new blueprint for resort development."
And Wilchcombe said
the planned revitalization of the Cable Beach area "will further
establish the Bahamas as a premier island destination. We are
competing with the world now."
mirror what's going on up and down the island chain.
Even the best-kept
"secret" locations are not safe. Consider remote Rum Cay, an island
nine miles long by five miles wide, 40 miles east of Great Exuma in
the Bahamas Out Islands, population 100. In May, ground was broken
there for a $700 million mixed-use resort development project that
will include a 200-slip marina for megayachts, a luxury hotel,
residences, restaurants and shops, a spa and fitness
chairman of Montana Holdings Ltd., the Nassau-based real estate
investor/developer, pledged "the utmost sensitivity to Rum Cay's
environmental harmony and ecological balance."
And in the
Dominican Republic, which of all the Caribbean destinations is
perhaps the key barometer of the building boom, real estate
projects are sprouting like palm trees.
Among the factors
responsible for the fevered buildup are several new direct flights
from the U.S., numerous investment incentives, a strong pool of
cheap labor, miles of prime beachfront real estate and a plethora
of all-inclusive resorts that creative tour operators package with
highly attractive rates.
11,000-acre, multibillion-dollar Costa Bayana project west of
Puerto Plata on the island's north coast, which will consist of
three luxury resort communities called Atlantica, Bayana and
The complex will
have a total of 28 boutique hotels, 900 marina slips, six signature
golf courses, three cruise ship piers and 11,000 residential units
priced from $306,000 for a one-bedroom loft up to $5.2 million for
a 7,750-square-foot oceanfront estate.
Two airports are
also being built, one for private jets and an international airport
near Montecristi, a 10-minute drive from Oceana.
According to Pierre
Schnebelen, president of Costa Bayana Partners, the project "is
designed to become the Costa Smeralda [in Sardinia, site of the Aga
Khan luxury development] of North America, delivering the highest
level of luxury to the most sophisticated clientele."
30,000-acre Cap Cana project now under construction south of Punta
Cana is destined to lead the Dominican Republic pack in sheer
The $1.5 billion
project runs along 3.5 miles of beach and includes golf courses,
condos, several hotels, thousands of private homes, marinas and a
marina village with guests ferried to and from yachts by
Venice-style vaporetto water taxis.
Roco Ki, a Taino Indian phrase meaning
"honoring the land," promises to be another seaside jaw-dropper.
Situated on four miles of beach in the Punta Cana area, it will
feature signature golf courses, a residential community, a marina
and a Westin resort with a spa, five pools and a marina.
arrangements include a long-term loan from the European Investment
Bank (owned by the European Union), representing the first loan to
a private Caribbean hospitality project by the EIB under the
Cotonou Agreement, a partnership of African, Caribbean and Pacific
countries and the European community.
"To have the EIB as
our partner in the Roco Ki development reflects the bank's
confidence in the project," said Nick Tawil, president and CEO of
Macau Beach Resort, the project's lead developer.
"This validates our
belief that Roco Ki's new luxury tourism resort, anchored by an
international hotel chain, will not only be a huge success but also
will pave the way for other tourism projects in the Dominican
Republic," Tawil said.
Although Roco Ki is
a large destination resort on 2,700 acres, Tawil said that it will
operate and function as a close-knit community of employees, owners
philosophy is to obtain balance with nature, the environment and
the local community," Tawil said.
Phase One at Roco Ki
The first phase of
the 10-year project will debut in late 2007. The 327-room Westin
Roco Ki Beach & Golf Resort will include 20 bungalows and 56
two- and three-bedroom condo units, a Nick Faldo-designed golf
course, a spa and a conference center. A marina, private homes,
additional hotels, a botanical garden and an interpretive museum
What's unusual is
that the Westin will be the first internationally branded European
Plan hotel, meaning no meals included, in the Punta Cana region, an
area known for its all-inclusive resorts.
When asked about
the reasoning behind this, Tawil said, "The Westin is an
upper-upscale resort, and our target clients are not known to be
heavy users of budget, all-inclusive resorts.
"Our guests will
choose our resort based on the Westin reputation for personalized
services and brand ambience. There will be six restaurants, room
service and a gourmet market as well as packages with and without
some meal components."
in the D.R. include four all-inclusive properties opening this
winter from Spain-based Bahia Principe Clubs & Resorts, which
also is opening a property on Jamaica.
Anguilla, a St. Regis Resort, will debut its Greg Norman-designed
golf course, the first on Anguilla, in November.
developer Flag Luxury Properties plans to
open the rest of the $500 million project in winter 2008, including
the first 120-room St. Regis hotel and spa on the island, estate
homes, villas and 64 St. Regis Residences, priced from $1.4 million
to $4.5 million each.
Another biggie on
the small island is the Kor Hotel Group's Viceroy Anguilla Resort
& Residences' project, which has garnered more than $250
million in residential sales since its groundbreaking last
Also in the works are Antigua's
first new condotel in 20 years, a 200-room project of villas and
bungalows by Miami-based BAP Development.
In Puerto Rico,
Bahia Beach outlined plans for a master-planned resort community on
a former coconut plantation 25 minutes from San Juan.
list goes on and on.
contact reporter Gay Nagle Myers, send e-mail to [email protected].