Perched on a breathtaking stretch of southern Chile's coastline, the luxury, 18-suite Cliffs Preserve Patagonia is one of the region's most ecologically significant, and economically exclusive, properties. With guests like Monaco's Prince Albert (and stays that run roughly $1,000 per night, per person), this "all inclusive plus" eco-resort, as General Manager James Ackerson calls it, testifies to southern Chile's arrival as a world-class travel destination.
Travel Weekly contributor Mario Correa spoke with Ackerson about the market for luxury travel in Patagonia, the rise of Chile as a go-to destination and the challenges of bringing top-end travelers to the bottom of the world.
TW: Tell me a little about the Cliffs Preserve Patagonia.
Ackerson: It consists of an 8,000-acre, private ecosystem that is a very significant footprint on this part of the earth, particularly for the migratory patterns of birds moving south to north, and north to south. So much of this part of Chile has been exploited for farmland in the last 150 years. Our management plan of the ecosystem says that we will have intensive use of just 250 hectares, a very magnificent coastal section of the property with some really beautiful beaches. The rest of the property truly is destined for us to be its good stewards and to let the ecosystem evolve as naturally as possible.
TW: By the numbers, Cliffs Preserve is one of the highest-end properties in Chile, or anywhere in Latin America. What's the differentiator?
Ackerson: We pride ourselves on going beyond service excellence to a "relational" service. That's absolutely integral to our vision. Ours is a project of pure passion, where we enable our guests to have heart-opening experiences that leave them crying when they leave. You would be blown away by the number of people who are literally brought to tears by seeing our guide staff doing a traditional Chilean huaso horse race across the beach. They see our people, their passion, their love for the horses, that real grassroots fun and sense of adventure in life, all those things that have nothing to do with where you can afford to travel or what kind of car you drive, and it just fills their needs. That's something that we love to orchestrate because it's who we are.
TW: But getting down to this part of the world can be an adventure of its own. How do you orchestrate that?
Ackerson: The gateway airport is Puerto Montt, and we're about 70 kilometers, or about an hour and 15 minutes, away. We provide all ins and outs [from there]. The road can be dusty, it can be muddy, but it's always colorful. We just had a stretch of it asphalted over the last year. We're getting closer, but we don't want to get too close.
TW: Luxury properties like yours cater to a very high-end consumer segment, of course. Given the means of these consumers, are these properties recession-proof?
Ackerson: Absolutely not. We're coming out of a period right now where the North American traveler in our segment was definitely traveling less. That said, we've seen good upward movement in the last 10 months, through our most recent high season, which ended on the first of May. Much of that has come from Europe. Maybe that Old World money is more recession-proof than New World money , I don't know. But it seems that Europeans, at least the ones we receive and I talk to, [are] less affected by what's going on in European economies than North Americans are by theirs.
TW: What other challenges, besides the economy, have you faced in your particular market segment in Chile?
Ackerson: High-end travelers have a tendency to try to bite off more than they can chew. They build vacations that include multiple countries in Latin America, with many connections, and that can make it very difficult to construct a great experience. We're working with our partners and our networks to show them that within Chile itself you can have a fantastic, highly varied experience. Until recently, upscale travelers planned a vacation that involved multiple countries -- Ecuador, Brazil, Chile -- usually ending up in Buenos Aires.
TW: That sounds exhausting ...
Ackerson: Yeah, well, the reason why that huge cultural spread occurred is that you had to travel that far to have that diverse of an experience. But now you can come to Chile and have an incredibly diverse experience visiting just one country. Now San Pedro [de Atacama, in the deserts of Northern Chile] is relevant, Valparaiso is relevant, Patagonia is relevant, Antarctica is becoming much more relevant. Chile itself is the destination: cultural diversity, geographic diversity, an experience that is really world-class.
TW: How has that level of consumer understanding of Chile grown in the 30-plus years you've been working there?
Ackerson: Dramatically. When I first came to Chile, I would tell people where I was going to and they would say, "Isn't that next to Mexico?" I remember, when I brought my Chilean wife to our community back home [in the States], they thought it would be really neat to have ingredients ready for her to make us tacos. And she had never seen a taco! That about sums it up.
TW: There's been grumbling in the past that Chilean tourism authorities haven't marketed Chilean Patagonia as successfully as, say, Argentine Patagonia has marketed itself. Is that fair?
Ackerson: That has improved significantly under President Sebastian Pinera. ... I have great faith that the tourism industry has taken on much more relevance in the government today, and consequently, that the relationship between the public and private sector has much improved. That doesn't mean [marketing a long-haul destination like Chile] is easy. While the Chilean miners helped put Chile on the map, we also had a major earthquake, and we had a volcano erupt and a number of other challenges, so it's never easy. But I feel very good about where things are headed.
TW: Speaking of challenges, student protests against Chile's system of financing higher education have become front-page news in North America and Europe. Does coverage of social unrest affect travelers' plans to your region?
Ackerson: The media is a special animal. What can be irrelevant from our perspective for a foreign traveler can be front-page news in some other medium. I am a supporter of change in education here in Chile, but I think the student protests in Santiago have as much relevance on what is going on in Chile day to day as a massive protest on the mall in Washington, D.C., would have on life elsewhere in the U.S. Free expression is important, but it shouldn't be misconstrued with general unrest.