COPAN, HONDURAS -- Honduras is probably more often associated with the Peace Corps and church missions than tourism. But this Central American country, rich in culture and history and blessed with the beauty of mountains, rain forests, pristine beaches and reefs, is making an aggressive effort to change that.
With still-affordable land and more than 450 miles of undeveloped Caribbean coastline along the country's north shore, the government has turned its attention to hotel investment and tourism in collaboration with the nonprofit Foundation for Investment and Development of Exports, or FIDE, which has been working since 1984 to promote industry development in the country.
"The misconception is that Honduras is a country that is in war all the time and has a lot of guerrillas," said Antonio Young, FIDE's executive vice president. "It is a destination that is not well advertised or known, perhaps because we have not had the budget or economic power to put an ad in the Wall Street Journal now and then."
But promotion and private sector partnerships, developed as part of a comprehensive tourism plan about six years ago by then-incoming President Ricardo Maduro, are starting to pay off.
Over the next three years, Raffles, Westin, St. Regis, Nikki Beach and several other yet-to-be-identified international brands will open new beach resorts and golf courses in Honduras.
Currently, the only internationally branded hotels are in the country's business centers, San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa.
In addition, Royal Caribbean and Carnival are building new cruise terminals on the island of Roatan, which until now has been known mostly as a dive destination. And there is a push to build an airport in the Copan area, which houses the ruins of one of the centers of Mayan civilization.
Done right, officials said, the country has the potential to offer an unrivaled mix of sights and adventures.
"Honduras has more to offer than Costa Rica" said Thierry de Pierrefeu Midence, president of the holding company that is developing a $120 million Raffles resort on the Bay Island of Guanaja. "Costa Rica basically has two products: beaches -- and the quality is much less than we have -- and its nature and adventure.
"We have adventure, we have better beaches, better national parks, although not as well-organized as Costa Rica. Another advantage is we have the Mayan ruins in Copan; we have the barrier reef; two living cultures, Mayan and Garifuna; and we have the colonial history."
De Pierrefeu Midence, who served as minister of tourism under President Maduro and helped develop the country's tourism plan, said the idea was to shy away from all-inclusive megaresorts and focus on "smaller, higher-quality products" and the "geotourism" niche.
Geotourism, he said, is sustainability and authenticity: "It's something you lived, something you experienced."
Two examples of such resorts already in Honduras are Hacienda San Lucas and the Lodge at Pico Bonito, which is located in one of the country's more than 100 protected national parks.
Hacienda San Lucas is a 100-year-old family retreat in the mountains that was converted into an eight-room ecolodge in 2000. The lodge, with an outdoor yoga hut, overlooks a valley and has a view of the town of Copan and the ruins.
The Lodge at Pico Bonito is a 21-room luxury resort in the Pico Bonito rain forest along Honduras' Caribbean coast near the town of La Ceiba, which has air service to Roatan and the country's other major airports.
Still, it's the beaches, with their white sand and clear, blue Caribbean water, that are drawing the bulk of current development.
One of the biggest projects is Los Micos Beach and Golf Resort, a joint venture between the Honduran Tourism Institute and some of the country's most influential businessmen. Located near Tela, once home to the owners and distributors of Chiquita bananas, the resort is being developed on 770 acres with beach, forest and lagoon access.
The first phase will include a 250-room, four-star hotel and a 150-room, five-star hotel. Project manager Fernando Ceballos said the hotels would be internationally branded, but he is not yet at liberty to say who will run them.
The project will also include an 18-hole Gary Player course and golf resort. Eventually, it will likely also include one or two more hotels and golf residences.
Most of the development, however, is taking place on the Bay Islands.
The Raffles resort, for example, is being developed on Guanaja, a Bay Island that currently doesn't even have a road. Plans call for a 100-villa hotel with rack rates of $800 to $1,200 a night.
The resort, which will also include 130 private residences, will be built along a private beach and will offer guests private jet transportation to and from the nearby island of Roatan.
On Roatan, Pakistani businessman Mohammed Yusuf Amdani's Grupo Karim, which has developed a number of business parks and was involved in building the textile industry in Honduras, is developing a Westin and St. Regis as part of the Mystic Harbor Roatan project on a peninsula between two mountains. The resort, which will offer beaches, mountains and rain forest, will also eventually include a Pete Dye golf course and a third hotel.
Also under development in Roatan, which currently has no five-star hotel, is Nikki Beach's latest resort.
Just opened this year is the island's first condohotel, Infinity Bay Spa and Beach Resort, a development of modern one- and two-bedroom condominiums.
Otherwise, most of the current accommodations on the island consist of more rustic, dive-type resorts.
Since the country implemented its tourism plan in 2002, the number of visitors has increased from 380,000 to 1.3 million last year.
De Pierrefeu Mi-dence estimated the country is about 20 years behind neighboring Costa Rica in its hotel development and tourism efforts. Because of that, real estate is 30% to 40% cheaper than Honduras' more popular regional competitor.
But while real estate prices are still attractive, there are many hurdles, the biggest being affordable airlift and infrastructure capable of handling the influx of visitors.
Honduras is just a two-hour flight from Houston, Miami and Atlanta. And while Continental, American and Delta all offer service, fares are about double the price of flying to Costa Rica, which is farther.
That means hotel owners generally have to lower their rates when offering packages, which the majority of tourists are looking for, said Robert Vinelli, an owner of the Pico Bonito lodge.
And hotel owners on Roatan say they are worried about a falloff in flights this fall. They have been meeting with airlines, trying to attract new service, but Julio Galindo, owner of Anthony's Key and a former Roatan mayor and senator, said business owners might have to commit to a certain number of seats.
The island also needs things like sewer systems, good medical care and solid environmental protections.
"They are not set up to handle the amount of people that could come along in the next couple of years, but they are getting ready for it," said Gene Albert, owner of Infinity Bay.
Galindo agreed: "With good local government, we can put this together," he said. "If the government doesn't do it, we are going to have to get the private sector involved."