Ariaú Amazon Towers closed at the beginning of 2016, 30 years after the first tower was built.
In June 6 1982, the French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau set out from Belém in northern Brazil to explore the Amazon River Basin. It was the 53rd expedition of the Calypso, Cousteau’s expedition ship.
The goal was to record and research one of the world’s most important yet little known ecosystems, before modern civilisation damaged it irreparably. Scientists would study the ecology and geology of the Amazon region.
Cousteau raised an estimated $4 million to cover the cost, selling the broadcasting rights to a future documentary series. It was a smart move. By doing so he had a means of communicating the importance of conserving this sensitive wilderness, as well as sufficient money to fund a team of scientists to carry out research that would be given to the Brazilian government for public benefit.
In Manaus, the capital of the state of Amazonas, the team stayed in the Hotel Monaco, owned by Dr Francisco Ritta Bernardino.
Although Bernardino credited Cousteau’s visit, and in particular words to the effect that the Amazon would be the focal point of a global battle to preserve the natural environment, he was without doubt a driven, visionary entrepreneur.
In 1986, he completed the first tower of the hotel complex at Ariaú, 35 miles northwest of Manaus on the banks of the Rio Negro, a major tributary of the Amazon River. Access was by a three hour boat ride. It compromised of four suites, served by a river-boat restaurant.
As the hotel became a regional destination, seven other towers were constructed. Each was 10 to 20 metres above the forest floor and together they were interlinked by over 5 miles of wooden catwalks. Additionally, there were 2 swimming pools, 2 observation towers, 2 restaurants, 4 bars, and an auditorium with a capacity for 450 people. Not only was it one of the first jungle lodges to be constructed, it was also one of the largest, with 288 units. The highest unit, also the most luxurious, called the Tarzan House, sat within a living Mahogony tree at a height of 22 metres.
Accommodation and facilities
The accommodation was as follows:
Tower 1: 28 standard rooms and the “World Peace” suite
Tower II: 38 standard rooms and staff accommodation
Tower III: Staff accommodation
Tower IV: 42 standard rooms and the “Royal” and “Imperial” suites
Tower V : 44 standard rooms and the “Divine”, “Celestial”, and “Supreme” suites
Tower VI : 46 standard rooms and the “Solar”, “Stelar” and “Cosmic” suites
Tower VIII: 70 standard rooms
There were three types of room or suite.
Standard rooms could sleep one, two or three people. Each was air-conditioned, had access to a balcony (offering views of the rainforest and the river) and a private bathroom.
The Treetop suites offered greater luxury. Each was unique in design, taking inspiration from the environment. They had larger, queen-sized beds, playrooms and living rooms, spacious bathrooms, private balconies, and all important TV.
The Tree Houses and Tarzan Suites were the premium accommodation. These were specially decorated in a theme that accorded to their names, such as Discovery or President Lula. They had unique construction, being carved from Amazonian trees and integrated in privacy within the canopy. They provided greater privacy for discerning guests.
The food served at the casual-style restaurants combined fresh local fish, meat and fruit and gave an experience of both Brazilian food and world cuisine.
The property comprises of the hotel buildings and more than 66 hectares of privately owned land. Transport was by typical Amazon riverboat between the hotel and Manaus, twice a day in both directions. A shuttle bus connected the wharf with the Manaus airport and city hotels. For the rich, a helicopter service operated on demand, landing at the helipads at hotel.
Activities included excursions on foot, by canoe or by boat to observe the environment and the nature. If navigating the Amazon, guests might venture upstream to see the Meeting of the Waters, a phenomenon where the waters of the Rio Negro and the Solimoes River meet but do not mix. Because of the differences in the density and temperature of the rivers, separate shades of water are visible for a distance of 4 miles.
There was interaction with indigenous people such as visits to their houses, and observation of and interaction with wildlife – monkeys, macaws, alligators and piranha fishing. A highlight was swimming with the rare pink dolphins.
The hotel reached its golden age in the late 1990s. It is estimated that between 1995 and 2001 annual revenues were around $12 million from the 3,000 visitors per month who visited. Packages cost between $500 and $2,000.
The hotel featured as a set in the film “Anaconda” and hosted TV reality show “Survivor”.
Without doubt, the Ariaú was highly influential in popularising eco-tourism the Amazonas region and further afield. It was well known by tour operators, journalists and artists as a destination for exploring the Amazon.
The hotel’s location, the architecture, the proximity of accommodation to the forest canopy (and therefore the wildlife), luxurious suites and celebrity guests helped cement the reputation as “one of the 1,000 places to see before you die”.
Journalists writing in “Frommer’s South America” criticised the hotel, with a strong message to avoid at all costs because it appeared false, like Disneyland. Large statues on walkways and other models around the resort may have contributed to this opinion.
Whether it was “all that is wrong with Amazon ecotourism”, is very subjective, depending on what the goals of ecotourism should be. The hotel created awareness of the issues in the region, provided guests with an experience of the forest without the need to invade further than the edges, and sustained over 400 direct and 300 indirect jobs for local people. It may be possible to criticise it for bringing too many people to the area, or for providing a sanitised experience. In such a delicate environment, it is difficult to balance tourism with conservation. If Ariaú hadn’t existed, the business would have been there for another similar hotel in the area.
The majority, 90%, of guests were Americans. After the attack on the Twin Towers in New York in 2001, Americans travelled less frequently by air. Although the management attempted to stimulate demand from Brazilians, there was far less demand from the local market. Because of the sensitive nature of the hotel, high maintenance costs, repair costs from flooding, and low visitor numbers, by 2004, the business was failing.
In 2006, Petrobras Distribuidora launched a claim for 1.5 million Real (about $500,000) for unpaid amounts relating to tax on fuel (gasoline and diesel) and other services provided between 2002 and 2004 for a TV production. In 2015, the Justice of the Amazon seized the property and determined that the hotel would be sold in order to pay the debt. The guide price was 26 million Real ($8.3 million). Under the terms, payment must have been in cash.