In 2014, Hurricane Odile swept through always-sunny Los Cabos, and for hoteliers, the results were devastating. The rebuilding that followed, however, offered a blank slate for the region to shed its reputation as a hotspot for wealthy spring-breakers and build a new identity as a luxury destination. Five years later and the tourism industry is booming: last year Los Cabos saw hotel investments exceed one billion dollars and more than 2,400 new rooms were expected to be completed by December of 2019.
But what does this mean for the environment and local community? The southern tip of the Baja California Peninsula is said to be home to the world’s most robust marine reserve and coral reef – Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park. With tourism growth demanding more of the desert region’s limited water supply, there is fear that the proposed solution – a desalination plant – would create runoff that could destroy the reef’s biodiversity. Meanwhile, the growth of commercial fishing has threatened fishing stocks in the Sea of Cortez, as well as the traditional fishing communities that rely on them as a source of income.
Thankfully, the region has a long history of conservation. Between 1995 and 2009, the coral reef’s biodiversity increased 463 percent and every major species returned, as a result of fishermen pulling back on commercial fishing when they noticed it was having negative impacts early on. As for the tourism industry – hotels have height and room count restrictions while tour operators work within strict guidelines designed to protect marine life. 19 of Los Cabos’ beaches have been labelled “Blue Flag Beaches,” a certification designated to the cleanest beaches in the world. “Now we call it sustainability,” Rodrigo Esponda, managing director for Los Cabos Tourism Board told Travel Pulse last year. “Back then, we called it long-term vision.”
Due to the sheer scale of their operations, top-tier hospitality brands will play a crucial role in determining the environmental and cultural preservation of Los Cabos. “I think these brands have a responsibility because they are aspirational,” Ricardo Iriarte, the Communications and Public Relations Manager of Solaz, A Luxury Collection Resort, Los Cabos tells me at Mako, their open-air restaurant overlooking one of the only swimmable beaches in the region. “The way hotels are built is going to change. The footprint that they leave has to be less. They have to think about doing more with less resources.”
At first glance, you may not believe that this jaw-dropping, 34-acre property was designed with the environment in mind. But renowned Mexican architectural firm Sordo Madaleno is dedicated to building structures that create a sense of place. Every detail – from the use of natural materials, such as wood and stone, to the floor-to-ceiling glass doors, to the rooftop gardens containing desert plants unique to the region – culminates in a seamless integration into the surrounding environment. The striking cubist buildings follow the natural declination of the land, appearing as terraces that cascade toward the crystal blue Sea of Cortez, separated by cacti-adorned pathways that were built on the dried river beds that preceded them.
The locally conscious approach extends beyond the hotel design to the guest experiences. The names of the resort’s three restaurants say it all: ‘Mako’ is a shark endemic to Baja, ‘Al Pairo’ is a sailing term, and ‘Cascabel’ translates to ‘rattle,’ referencing the rattle snakes found in the Baja desert. Food at all three restaurants is sourced from organic, biodynamic farms, sustainable fisheries, and local craftsman who make traditional cheeses. Recognizing that good stewardship means partnering with responsible providers, Solaz also works exclusively with tour operators concerned with the preservation of the environment, such as Pelagic Safari.
For the guest, environmentally-conscious choices translate to more meaningful experiences – every plate has a story behind it while wildlife adventures provide an education on the conservation of specific species. For the hotel, this translates to greater efficiency and cost-effectiveness: choosing native plants means less watering while working with nearby producers reduces transport costs.
Being mindful of the environmental impact beyond their own plot of land extends to considering the social effects that the growing tourism industry is having on the region. Their Green Hospitality Training Program, for example, provides scholarships for youth from low-income families to receive training in hospitality. By supporting local farmers, fishermen, and craftsman, and providing an education for students, they help strengthen the livelihoods of nearby communities today but also for generations to come.
Solaz proves that luxury doesn’t have to be sacrificed in the pursuit of responsible travel, on the contrary – they demonstrate that the two types of travel have a symbiotic relationship. As Iriarte tells me, “Luxury is in the details.” Luxury chain hotel brands have an incentive to make socially and environmentally conscious choices because doing so requires designing with all the details in mind, and detail-oriented design is what makes an experience luxurious.
At Solaz, it’s the locally conscious details that elevate the experience. A striking mural in the lobby depicting nearby cave paintings, algae installations in guest rooms, the cacti sculpture outside Mako restaurant – the property boasts over 400 pieces of art that were collected over the year and a half period that artist César López Negrete devoted to exploring the Baja peninsula. Educating guests through art continues at Gabinete Del Barco, the on-site museum home to a 43-foot-long whale skeleton. Guests can also take tours of Solaz’s endemic dry jungle filled with native plants and towering cacti – some of which are 450 – 600 years old.
Even for the traveller seeking effortless R&R, Solaz ensures a beach vacation can be an immersive one. The design of their Ojo de Liebre Spa is inspired by a regional whale found in the nearby Ojo de Liebre lagoon. Upon entering the 10,000 square foot space, you’re welcomed at a black, marble reception desk shaped like a fin, set against a smooth, grayscale wall representing the belly of the whale. The Ojo de Liebre lagoon is referenced throughout the spa with flowing mineral water and furniture shaped like coral. The spa pays homage to the lagoon’s high concentration of sea salt with a Himalayan salt igloo, known for its respiratory cleansing benefits, and thalassotherapy pool, that offers an alkalizing salt water treatment you won’t find anywhere else in the region.
There is no denying that the booming tourism industry in Los Cabos will continue to pose challenges to the preservation of the region’s rich aquatic biodiversity and desert environment, as well as the livelihoods of local communities. But Solaz shows us that with the building of a new property comes the opportunity to mitigate the severity of a hotel’s environmental and social impact from the onset. As luxury travel moves away from the impersonal towards an emphasis on immersive experiences, hopefully we will continue to see more hotel brands realize that it’s in everyone’s best interest – the hotelier, the guest, and the local – to design with the surrounding environment, both physical and cultural, in mind.