Américas / May-June 1999
By Larry Luxner
What's the best way to lure upscale tourists to Mexico these days?
Grupo Posadas thinks it has the answer: by throwing in romance, adventure, mystical Maya ruins and the lure of science -- from astronomy to zoology -- along with all the normal amenities of luxury travel.
That's the rationale behind Explorean, the fourth and newest brand to be unveiled by Grupo Posadas -- already the largest hotel chain in Mexico and Latin America.
"We're very proud of being the first to introduce this alternative vacation concept in Mexico," said Gaston Azcarraga Andrade, president of the 51-hotel conglomerate. "The Explorean opens the doors to a unique kind of vacation that seeks to not only capture the beauty of nature and climate, but also allows visitors to take something special home from their unique experience."
The first property in Posadas' new lineup, the 40-room Explorean Kohunlich, opened Mar. 8 in a densely forested area 32 miles west of Chetumal, capital of Quintana Roo. The resort itself is situated on 71 acres of forest, and is adjacent to the archaeological region of Kohunlich, one of Mexico's most important Mayan ruins.
The second, the 80-room Explorean Costa Maya, is located on a 21-acre mangrove forest on a mile-long pristine beach on the Caribbean coast, about 250 miles south of Cancun. It's scheduled to be inaugurated Apr. 8. The company says this resort "will offer guests total privacy in 68 individual suites and 12 cabins." It's not far from the traditional fishing village of Mahahual, often used as a jumping-off point for diving expeditions.
Eduardo Schutte is sales director for Posadas' Fiesta Americana unit, which will operate all Explorean resorts. He says the new hotels are definitely not geared for the typical middle-class vacationer on a package tour.
"These hotels are for people 35-50 years old, whose annual income is $75,000 or more, and who appreciate nature, mountain climbing and similar activities," Schutte said in a phone interview from Mexico City. "They don't fall into any categories, but we are calling them deluxe resorts, because in Mexico, basically every hotel calls itself a five-star hotel. This is a different kind of luxury, a casual luxury of having a beautiful room decorated with Hispanic motifs."
Given recent tourist statistics, the decision to unveil the Explorean brand couldn't have come at a more opportune time for Posadas and the Mexican tourism industry.
In 1998, just under 20 million tourists visited Mexico, generating revenues of $7.85 billion. According to the World Tourism Organization, this made Mexico the leading tourist destination in Latin America, and the seventh most-popular destination in the world. Tourism revenues this year are expected to top $8.1 billion, said Mexico's tourism undersecretary, Héctor Flores, adding that 75% of the $2.2 billion worth of private invest-ment in tourism infrastructure this year will be used to build luxury hotels.
At the same time, the state of Quintana Roo plans to lure tourism revenue to its poorer southern half by developing its coastline below the Sian Ka'an nature reserve. Hoping to replicate the success of the Riviera Maya with a southern counterpart called Costa Maya, officials are paving the way for development by building airports and roads, and making other infrastructure improvements. Meanwhile, this month [March] will see the opening of a new Four Seasons hotel at the Punta Mita resort in Puerto Vallarta. Initial investment in the project is slated at $300 million.
In keeping with its environmentally friendly image, Azcarraga said all Explorean resorts will be set in relaxing, romantic and mystical settings -- most of them untouched -- on large parcels of land nestled either in the tropical forest or next to Mexico's beaches, with the design of each resort to blend into the region or environment. Prices will hover around $200 per person per night -- including all activities, drinks, food, taxes and tips.
In addition to the usual swimming, snorkeling and scuba diving that attracts visitors to Mexico and the Caribbean, Explorean guests will be able to explore cenotes (large and deep fresh-water wells) as well as observe native wildlife such as pumas, jaguars, toucans and spider monkeys.
At Kohunlich, guests will have the chance to paddle 45 minutes in a kayak along the Rio Hondo -- which divides Mexico and Belize -- arriving in a village that's changed little since the days of the Maya. Other activities include bicycle rides, archaeology, day and night jungle walks, wind-surfing, canoeing and astronomical observation. Each hotel will have expert guides to help guests plan daily programs.
"There are no chains doing what we're doing in Mexico. They don't have the know-how to be able to sell this concept in the United States," says Schutte, adding that "this is mainly geared toward a very specific kind of tourist. We think we're going to find them in the Northeast and in California."
To that end, Schutte and his staff are planning a public-relations blitz, launching trade shows and other special events in both New York and San Francisco over the next few months.
If the first two properties live up to expectations, says Schutte, the company will shoot for over 1,000 Explorean rooms within the next four to five years.
"We're talking about 25 to 30 properties, of 40 to 50 rooms each," he said. At an average $120,000 per room, this implies an investment of $100 million or more. "We've been approached by several investors who are anxious to join us in opening more hotels," he said without naming names. "We've been approached by two of them, one for an Explorean in Cozumel, the other for a hotel in Baja California."
This year, he says, occupancy at the two Exploreans will reach 50%, rising to 70% or more in 2000. "We're expecting to cover our investment in approximately six years. The normal return for investment is 10 years," said Schutte.
Grupo Posadas is expanding in other areas. Last year, it paid $122.7 million to acquire the Caesar Park brand in Argentina and Brazil, as well as three existing hotels in Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. It also plans to invest in Venezuela and other Latin American markets.