Belize Is Not Just for Backpackers Any More

Luxury Travel

Belize Is Not Just for Backpackers Any More

The hiker’s haven is getting a serious injection of luxury–and yes, there will be overwater bungalows .

For all of Belize’s cultural diversity–the country’s melting pot heritage is equal parts Mayan, Creole, Mestizo, Spanish, Lebanese, Chinese, British, Indian, and Mennonite–its tourism scene is surprisingly one-note.

Nearly three-quarters of its 1.4 million annual visitors arrive by cruise ship, docking for just enough time to see the Altun Ha Mayan ruins, ride some zip lines, or run tubing through its famed Crystal Cave. And while a small clutch of luxury hotels exists–led by the pioneering, culinary-focused Copal Tree Lodge and the Coppola family’s private island retreat, Turtle Inn–Belize has suffered from a backpacker reputation that undermines its true Caribbean charms.

The Mahogany Bay Resort and Beach Club.
Source: Mahogany Bay Resort& Beach Club

That’s changing.” When I started coming here 15 years ago, it was Birkenstocks and REI purses on the TropicAir flights ,” says Beth Clifford, founder of the three-month-old Mahogany Bay Resort& Beach Club, referring to the 14 -seat Cessna flights that are ubiquitous in Belize.” I just got off a TropicAir plane today and counted no fewer than three Louis Vuitton purses ,” she adds.” The profile has changed solely .”

Mahogany Bay is the first in a long string of luxury openings coming to Belize. It opened in December on the southeastern tip-off of Ambergris Caye, with a 70 -acre beach club and exploration center for fly-fishing, spelunking, and scuba diving. Joining it soon are a farm-to-table project with solar-powered beachfront cottages, a Dream Hotel Group property adjacent to a jaguar conserve, and Leonardo DiCaprio’s wellness-focused eco-resort, Blackadore Caye.

Blackadore Caye
Source: Denniston International Architects& Planner Ltd .

All that growth indicates no signs of stopping. By the time Four Seasons Caye Chapel opens in 2021 with 30 to 40 overwater bungalows on a private island, the country will be vying with the world’s hottest honeymoon destinations.

Four Seasons is leveraging an unheralded aspect of Belize’s topography: Off the country’s coast are 450 atolls that form a low-lying archipelago, similar to the Maldives or the South Pacific. This archipelago, however, is a five-hour flight from New York, a six-hour flight from Los Angeles, and an hour and a half from Miami. For Americans and South Americans, it’s a new destination next door.

” It really does remind me of the Maldives ,” tells Michael Crawford, Four Seasons’ chairperson of portfolio management and owned relations.” It’s pretty rare to find places like this, where you can create an entire destination unto itself on a private island, much less one that’s proximate to the U.S.–and with good infrastructure ,” he tells Bloomberg.

Why Now?

A rendering of the waterside bungalows at the Four Seasons Caye Chapel.
Source: Four Seasons Caye Chapel

All the things that excite Belize’s foreign developers–great beaches, an abundance of watersports activities, crowd-pleasing land jaunts, and rich culture and culinary traditions–have always existed. So “why theres” Belize just gaining traction now?

” Destinations take time to build ,” tells Four Seasons’ Crawford. The Belizean government, he adds, constructed theirs slowly but intentionally, creating a desirable real estate market with a fairly low cost of entry and no estate or capital gains taxes.” They understand that when you draw luxury ownership, the market grows and luxury tourism follows ,” Crawford adds. A” qualified persons retirement program” has also fostered high-net-worth individuals to become full-time grafts, rather than occasional visitors with vacation homes.

According to developer Andrew Ashcroft, whose household has deep roots here–his English grandfather arrived via plane, ship, and” a banana boat” in the aftermath of World War II–Belize is an easy place for expats to settle. It’s English-speaking and ruled in accordance with English common law( it belongs to Britain’s Commonwealth, like Canada and Australia ), and the melting pot of cultures means that nobody sticks out.

For tourism, that means a big opportunity for multi-generational trips.” Expats have a nice community here, and they’re bringing their children down and then fall in love with the place ,” Ashcroft explains.( His own project, an Autograph Collection resort called Alaia, will open in Ambergris Caye in 2020, with an open studio for local artisans merely off the hall .)

Add significant financial incentives for luxury developers–such as free repatriation of profits and waived duties–as well as a geographic location just outside the hurricane belt, and Belize becomes a no-brainer for hoteliers.

Where to Go

The Great House at Mahogany Bay .
Source: Mohogany Bay