TOLA—After several millennia of being suckled and shaped by Mother Nature, the windswept virgin shoreline of Nicaragua’s “Emerald Coast” is now under the guardianship of Grupo Pellas, which is carefully developing this pristine piece of land into what it promises will be Nicaragua’s—if not Central America’s—premier beach resort by the end of next year.
Guacalito de la Isla, a $250 million tourism development tucked into the forested Pacific slope overlooking a series of unexplored coves that dimple the coastline, is being called a “game changer” for Nicaragua’s small yet feisty tourism sector.
“We think that Guacalito de la Isla could be for Nicaragua what the Four Seasons was for Costa Rica,” said Carlos Pellas, the controlling shareholder of Grupo Pellas, one of Central America’s largest business conglomerates and the cleanup hitter for the Nicaraguan economy.
On Dec. 3, one year before the luxury hotel, golf course and spa opens to the public, Pellas and his development team held a private sneak peak of the Guacalito property for a coterie of investors and friends eager to see the early phase of development, explore the property, walk through one of the model units, and test their stroke with a 3-iron on a tricky approach to a scenic par 3.
“Today you are seeing our dream. The vision we had of creating a unique tourist destination is becoming a reality,” Pellas said, flanked by his wife, Vivian Pellas, and his development team, dressed uniformly in white golf shirts.
“We are creating a catalyst that will put Nicaragua on the world tourism map,” Pellas said.
After a century of captaining Nicaragua’s economy and cornering entire industries, it was only a matter of time before Grupo Pellas made its foray into tourism. The family conglomerate, which employs more than 25,000 people in Nicaragua, is already heavily involved in sugar, rum, ethanol, media, insurance, citrus, health-care and auto dealerships.
The Pellas name is also attached to some of the largest brand names in Nicaragua, from Flor de Caña Rum and the INCAE business school, to the Casa Pellas dealerships (which has exclusive rights to all sales of Toyota, Mahindra, Hino, Suzuki, and Yamaha) and the world-class Vivian Pellas Hospital. Pellas also founded BAC Credomatic financial network in 1985, which he finalized the sale of last year in what was the largest transaction in Central American history.
Now, instead of retiring, Pellas is setting his sights on the next frontier of Nicaragua’s economy: tourism. And of all the projects Carlos Pellas has been involved with over the years, Guacalito de la Isla is the one he wants to be remembered for.
“After everything we did at BAC, the easiest, most logical and most comfortable thing for me to do would have been to retire. Go home, smoke my cigar, fish and relax. But I said, ‘We have to do something else’,” Pellas said. “I always had an idea in my head to leave some sort of legacy that goes beyond something that will benefit only shareholders—a legacy that will put a stamp on the country.”
In making his mark on Nicaraguan tourism, Pellas is not cutting any corners for his legacy project. From the road and sewage infrastructure to the spa and golf course details, Pellas is promising a resort that will be among the best in the world.
And he’s spending the money to get the quality he wants.
“Everything is being done here according to international standards,” Pellas said. “One of our goals is to achieve and maintain leadership through excellence. And we can only do that by comparing ourselves to the best in the world.”
To do that, Pellas says he’s assembled the best international team available.
The 18-hole golf course, which will open next December, is being designed by renowned Scottish architect David McLay Kidd, named “the hottest architect in golf” by Golf World Magazine. Kidd’s international portfolio includes The Castle Course at the legendary St. Andrews Links Trust in Scotland, Bandon Dunes, which was ranked #1 in the 2004 Zagat Survey of America’s Top Golf Courses, and Queenwood, ranked #1 in the Golf World U.K.’s list of Best New Private Course in 2002.
Guacalito’s “Mukul Spa” will also be in a class of its own, the business tycoon says.
“We have traveled the world looking at different spas and we have taken the best elements from the best spas in the world and we have brought the best managers and administrators from the most successful spas in the world,” Pellas said. “I can’t talk about it yet because it’s a secret, but when the hotel opens remember that I told you that this spa will be the only one of its kind in the world.”
The name of the Spa, “Mukul,” is the Maya word for secret.
But once the secret is out, Pellas says he expects people to come from all over the globe to visit Guacalito’s facilities and enjoy its unrivaled natural beauty.
The combination of world-class facilities and virgin natural beauty will raise the bar for tourism in Nicaragua and move the chains on the country’s development potential.
“Three percent of tourists worldwide generate 40% of tourism revenue on a global level; that’s a statistic that we have to keep in mind always because this is a country that has everything it needs to bring that type of world-class tourism,” Pellas said.
Currently, he says, Nicaragua generates one job for every tourist who visits the country. Pellas’ goal is to generate six jobs for every tourist who visits Guacalito de la Isla. Already, the development has 1,200 workers on the payroll just to get the project ready for the first tourists to arrive late next year.
Commitment to nature
While Pellas hopes to put his stamp on Nicaraguan tourism, he doesn’t want to put his footprint on Nicaragua’s nature.
Those who work on the project say Pellas’ commitment to conservation borders on fanatical.
Kidd says he’s been instructed numerous times to not cut down any trees or “move any rocks” in designing the golf course, which Pellas insists must flow with the property and not disturb the landscape.
“Every time I see his helicopter coming over the hill I get nervous that he’s going to come fire me because he thinks I’ve cut down a tree or a bush,” Kidd says with a laugh.
Pellas demonstrated his commitment to the trees when he flew in a special team of arborists from Houston to help move a 1-million pound, 150-year-old Guanacaste tree that was where the main road into the project needed to pass.
“That’s an example of what we are doing here. It would have been easy to just cut down the tree and plant a new one that in 100 years would have looked the same. But that’s not our way of doing things,” Pellas said.
All told, the construction crew has already transplanted 1,500 trees to avoid cutting anything down, and has planted 75,000 trees in a nursery that will be used to reforest the site once construction is completed.
A first for Nicaragua
Nicaragua’s government is also celebrating the advance of Guacalito de la Isla.
“I think this project is important for the development of tourism in the country and will be a reference for other projects and future investments,” Tourism Minister Mario Salinas told The Nicaragua Dispatch. “This is a pioneer for this type of development here in Nicaragua. And now Nicaragua has to create conditions so that this type of project can develop, succeed and flourish.”
Salinas said the government’s side of the bargain in tourism development is to continue to invest in infrastructure and country promotion so that tourists come to Nicaragua and can move around comfortably and safely once they’re here.
Guacalito de la Isla is not only raising the standards for other tourism projects, but for Nicaragua itself, Salinas said.
“Now the goal is to put Nicaragua on the same level as this project,” he said “This project is important because it gives all of us a concrete goal to shoot for.”