Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Courting the Jet Set

Sent: Wednesday, September 28, 2005 23:22
To: Ling Ong
Subject: Today's WSJ.


Shunning the Backpackers,
Courting the Jet Set

Developing Countries Focus
On Luring Wealthy Tourists;
Namibia on $1,000 a Day

September 28, 2005; Page D1

Well-heeled, experienced travelers who have seen everything -- high-end hotels, high-end cruises and high-end spas -- are flocking to a new tourism segment: the high-end country.



See high-end places to visit in developing countries.





Across the globe, a handful of developing nations, including Namibia, Botswana and the Seychelles, are subverting the traditional tourism model. Rather than allowing themselves to be pioneered by the budget backpacker crowd, only later to develop the infrastructure for big hotels, these nations are starting in the opposite direction. They're first wooing that minuscule slice of affluent travelers who will pay massive premiums for fancy digs far removed from the travel riffraff.

Dubbed "high value, low volume" tourism, the theory is to maximize the money derived from a small group of big spenders. In doing so, these countries hope not only to avoid damaging their natural and cultural attractions, but also aim to hang on longer to that exclusive cachet that will keep fickle luxury travelers returning for many years.

[Amankora resort]
Inside a room at the Amankora resort in Bhutan.



The most visible and oft-cited example is the kingdom of Bhutan, the once hermetic Buddhist country whose citizens gained access to television only a few years ago. Fearing a flood of $15-a-day trekkers like those who flock to nearby Nepal, the country established a no-exceptions $200-a-day minimum fee for all visitors, regardless of whether they are sleeping in a tent or at a top hotel. Now, this tiny country sandwiched between India and Tibet is a darling of luxury travel circles. It recently attracted Amanresorts, the super-luxury hotel chain, which is in the process of building five Aman resorts that will be scattered across the nation. The daily rate (including meals, fees and services): about $1,100. (Even at that price, there are no television sets or phones in the rooms, though iPods are provided upon request.)

In Botswana, a landlocked country bordered by Zimbabwe and South Africa, among other nations, the government leases its prime wildlife-viewing areas to a handful of small lodges that offer top-drawer service at high prices. Vumbura Plains, a camp that opened this year, includes private plunge pools with each of its rooms. In Namibia, an up-and-coming travel destination in southwestern Africa known for its stark desert landscapes, a $1,000-per-night resort opened last year. And in the Seychelles, a string of Indian Ocean islands off East Africa, the only "camp" on its North Island has rooms that run over $3,000 a night.

Luxury travel in developing countries isn't without controversy. To some, it is unseemly to build $1,000-a-night resorts in parts of the world where many people live in poverty.

[Vumbura Plains photo]
Each room at Vumbura Plains has a private pool.



High prices don't always ensure a flawless vacation. In April of this year, Chantal Prunier, a retired real-estate executive in Los Angeles, paid several thousands of dollars for a trip to Bhutan that she says included middling food, medium-grade bathroom facilities and in one case, limited electricity. Still, Ms. Prunier raves about the trip, which was organized by San Francisco-based Geographic Expeditions. "The countryside and people are beautiful," she says. "It is one of the most exotic places in the world."

In Botswana, the country's exclusivity strategy was inspired, some travel experts say, by the small, luxury camps that first popped up in South Africa. The government limits the number of visitors to its wilderness areas. Colin Bell, founder of Wilderness Safaris, the largest operator in Botswana, says one private reserve of 275,000 acres is allowed a maximum of 52 visitors at any one time. Mr. Bell says that his firm pays $300,000 a year plus over 20% of the lodge's profits to the local community for exclusive use of another safari area.

[Seychelles photo]
A view to the beach at North Island, Seychelles.



In Botswana's top-flight camps, the rooms are more like compounds, including a luxury tent, deck, indoor and outdoor showers and what's called a sala, a separate covered deck furnished with day beds for outdoor game viewing.

Room prices for Botswana are 20% higher than comparable camps in East Africa, but that doesn't seem to be scaring off customers. Mr. Bell says some of his camps are running at 90% occupancy. "Many of the camps are showing limited availability for April, May, June of next year," adds Ryan Hilton, a Sarasota, Fla.-based agent specializing in luxury safaris. "There's no shortage of money and travelers prepared to pay."

Many say Namibia appears to be moving toward a high-end, low-volume strategy similar to Botswana's. In Namibia, the new Little Ongava camp's three thatched rooms are set amid 74,000 acres.

An interior of a guest tent at the Mombo camp in Botswana.



It is unclear how long the countries will pursue the exclusivity strategy, however, especially when faced with increasing demand. Travel veterans point to Costa Rica and the Galapagos as examples of countries that began pursuing such policies only to fall off the wagon, tempted by the influx of dollars that bigger numbers bring. Richard Butler, professor of International Tourism at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, notes that such policies are easier to pursue if the appeal of a destination is naturally limited for other reasons, like the Caribbean island of Dominica, which uses its off-the-beaten-path appeal to compensate for a lack of white sand beaches. Already, the Seychelles, while still regarded as high-end, now boast a number of big hotel developments.

In the meantime, some travelers are willing to pay for an experience that is a touch more exotic. Jules Rose, a retired supermarket executive in Sarasota, Fla., says he booked his Botswana safari 10 months in advance and paid "at least" a 15% to 20% premium more than he did for a safari in Kenya. In exchange, Mr. Rose says he got a much more intimate view of the animals and their lives, as opposed to "six to seven Land Rovers in one spot in any given time." "It's like everything in life," he says. "You pay for what you get."

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