Resort in Costa Rica Goes for the Big Green

Steve Case's Eco-Getaway

By Kendra Marr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 3, 2007; Page D01

Growing up in Hawaii, AOL co-founder Steve Case cringed as manicured cookie-cutter hotels took over the islands, wiping out precious natural spaces and crowding out local culture.
Now Case is proposing his own development in paradise: an $800 million, 650-acre luxury resort in Costa Rica. But he says he is aiming to avoid what developers have done to Waikiki, pledging to make the new resort -- which will be called Cacique -- an environmentally friendly and culturally sensitive destination.

This is like being able to press rewind and start fresh," said Case, who is scheduled to announce the venture today at a news conference with Costa Rican President Oscar Arias.

The announcement also marks the launch of Revolution Places, the new destination resort unit of Revolution, a District holding-and-operating company founded by Case in 2005 with $500 million of his own money after leaving AOL. Other Revolution subsidiaries include Revolution Health, a consumer-oriented health-care company, and Revolution Living, a lifestyle business whose holdings include the Flexcar car-sharing service.

Case says Revolution Places will seek to redefine the luxury resort category by making environmental preservation and cultural authenticity priorities at every property it develops. Cacique, scheduled to open in 2010, is the firm's first resort under that model.

Revolution Places says it plans to integrate the Cacique project with the terrain of the peninsula where it will be built. The resort's 270 guest rooms and 300 private homes will be set among existing rain forest and wildlife. Rock walls will become walls of homes and the shade of the vegetation will replace man-made awnings.

"We want to keep the vegetation as natural as it's always been there," said Philippe Bourguignon, vice chairman of Revolution Places.

In addition to environmentally friendly architecture, the resort will buy power generated by renewable resources. There are also plans for recycling and solid-waste management programs, as well as on-site waste water treatment facilities. The company is in talks with conservation groups and plans to invest in several local initiatives.

However, any development within a complex ecosystem like a rain forest will always make a significant impact, said Daniel Williams, former co-chairman of the American Institute of Architects' Committee on the Environment and author of "Sustainable Design: Ecology, Architecture and Planning."

"If you're going to tear something down and change the ecological value of it, you have to replace an equal amount of rain forest, which is virtually impossible," he said. "The rain forest is a very sophisticated, long-lived system."

Once a remote destination favored by backpackers and surfers, the northwest Pacific corner of Costa Rica has experienced a recent surge of development as the region has caught the interest of well-heeled U.S. consumers. Several luxury hotel and condominium projects -- including one operated by Four Seasons -- have been built in recent years, and more are being planned.

Ecotourism continues to gain popularity as consumers become more sensitive to the environmental impact of their spending decisions, said James Angel, associate professor of finance at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University.

"For someone who made money in the high-tech boom, they may have some ecological guilt about a high-consumption lifestyle," Angel said. "Spending time at a resort where they feel they are having minimal impact on land will make them feel better than going to some resort where the virgin wilderness is hacked away."

Like Revolution's other ventures, Revolution Places caters to a new generation of consumer. In the past, high-end vacations were equated with pristine hotels and fine dining, said Donn Davis, chief executive of Revolution Places. Today's affluent tourists prefer swimming with dolphins and swinging down zip lines, he said. They want to eat authentic local food. And they want to take their kids, he said.

"It's a whole new definition of luxury," Davis said.

The project brings together several high-end travel brands. One & Only Resorts, a hotel firm with locations worldwide, will operate the beachfront hotel. Exclusive Resorts, a luxury time-share business owned by Revolution, will build 30 of the resort's homes. Miraval, a destination spa featured on "Oprah" and owned by Revolution, will operate a facility with 120 rooms and 60 villas.

The resort will also have some star power. Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf, who signed a partnership agreement last fall with Exclusive Resorts, will design the tennis and fitness center. Tom Doak, a renowned golf course designer, will build an 18-hole course that limits the impact on the local terrain. Philippe Cousteau, grandson of the famous underwater explorer, will serve as Revolution Places' special adviser on environmental issues and will develop activities.

To preserve the region's culture, the company says, Cacique will feature local retailers, not Gucci or Prada, in the resort's shopping center. Restaurants will serve regional cuisine prepared by local chefs.

The resort, 25 miles from the international airport in the town of Liberia, will be completed in phases. All services will be operating by 2010, but some houses will still be under construction. Residences will range from 4,000-square-foot homes to lofts of less than 2,000 square feet.

Though Revolution Places says it's too early to set rates for Cacique, a look at One & Only Resorts' other properties offers some clues. A deluxe villa in its Maldives location can run up to $2,180 a night.

"These will be some of the most expensive homes and hotels," Davis said. "It's for the affluent families who want the best of the best. We're targeting the high-end, most discerning buyers and travelers."

Revolution Places says it wants to get its Costa Rican resort right before exploring other properties. Case says he doesn't want it to be too manufactured or theme-park-ish.

"It'll be like the best of Hawaii without the parts us locals are not as proud of," he said.

   
 
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