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.
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.
” 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
Plan a journey to Belize in 2018, and you’ll be ahead of the curve. Of the half-dozen properties that are bringing in a high tide for luxury, only Mahogany Bay has opened its doorways. But its arrival is significant.” Our resort is on an island with about 2,000 hotel rooms–closer to 2,200 , now that we’re open” says Clifford.” Of those, less than 500 are up to international standards .” Most of the accommodations, she says, are casual bed-and-breakfasts, leaving a big gap in the market.
Mahogany Bay fills that pit. Its lobby occupies the largest wooden structure in Belize( a riff on a colonial-style Great House ), and its clapboard bungalows and villas stand along a series of picturesque canals. Guests can request” dressing cocktails “– in-room beverages to enjoy while get gussied up–or sofa in overwater hammocks. Some will recognize it as the backdrop for the most recent swimsuit issue.
When it opens in November, Itz’ana will have a similar upscaling consequence in the beach town of Placencia. Apart from the Coppola family’s Turtle Inn and the tiny Cayo Espanto, Itz’ana will be the only luxury game in town, with 50 sustainably designed rooms and suites, a dedicated Rum Room, and a Hemingway-inspired aesthetic.( Blackadore Caye is still projecting an” aim of 2018″ opening, but locals are highly skeptical of the timeline .)
Visit during the spring and winter months, when the climate is warm and dry. Simply fly into Belize City–which has recently added direct flights on Southwest and WestJet airlines–and then book TropicAir transfers to get from place to place. The country is approximately as big as New Jersey, so almost any two points in Belize can be connected within an hour.
And bear in mind: Sophia Coppola may have said that Belize is a place to do nothing, but the country offers plenty of tempting outings. Scuba diving, fly-fishing, kayaking, picnicking by secret waterfalls–it’s all easily arranged, and that’s just scratching the surface.
Save your Belize trip for 2020 or beyond, and you’ll find a totally different destination. For one thing, plans are underway for an international airport in Placencia, which would make it faster and easier to access one of the country’s best beaches.” If the airport happens, it’s the icing on the cake ,” tells Ronan McMahon, a real estate expert and contributor to, who named Placenia among the three overseas beaches most likely to boom in 2018.
The influx of major luxury brands–such as Autograph Collection and Four Seasons–will also bring dramatic change. As Crawford sets it, people are more likely to travel to a lesser-known destination when a company they trust is there to welcome them.
It’s not just Americans that are stimulating wagers on Belize, either. On a recent night, Clifford procured guests from Manhasset, N.Y ., San Francisco, London, South Africa, Montserrat, and Jakarta all sitting around Mahogany Bay’s bar–proof that an international clientele has started to catch on.
But neither she nor Crawford worry that Belize will become overdeveloped.” The luxury market will continue to take off here ,” says Clifford,” but we’re not on the yacht circuit, so we won’t become St. Barth, and the building code maintains everything at five narratives, so we won’t become Cancun, either .”
” You can’t build on all of the 450 islands out here–some are far too small ,” explains Crawford,” and they won’t be places for massive destination resorts .” It really is like the Maldives, he tells Bloomberg:” beautiful to fly over, gorgeous nature, and perfect for intimate experiences that people will remember .”