By Gaynor Dumat-ol Daleno

HAGATNA, Guam (Pacific Daily News, Oct. 23) - After having been slowed by Japan's economic sputter, hilltop development Leopalace Resort has become a revitalized tourism industry player.

In contrast to the closures, foreclosures and downsizing that have shaken hotel row along Tumon Bay, the resort on Manenggon Hills quietly began test-running its 208-room hotel a week ago, in preparation for a grand opening next month.

Hotel Belvedere, named after the Latin word for "beautiful" or "nice view," features guest-room balconies that allow guests to see the resort's custom-made lake.

As part of the early stage of its development, the resort poured more than two million gallons of water to create the lake, which also serves as a background for a nearly finished glass and steel chapel for tourist weddings.

Completion of the hotel gives new life to the resort's mammoth development plan, which started more than a decade ago but stalled when Japan's economic bubble burst.

By the time Belvedere's operation will be in full swing next month, it will have created about 300 jobs, increasing Leopalace's total employment to about 800, said Yoshio Kakihara, Leopalace resort general manager.

The jobs created by the hotel's opening essentially equates to more than 60 percent of all 450 jobs gained on Guam over a year through June.

The hotel's completion became a job opportunity for Homer Roales, 27, who was hired as a bar manager.

Roales moved to Leopalace from the Holiday Inn Resort Guam.

Despite the Guam tourism industry's ups and downs, Roales said he believes the industry will be here to stay.

"There's always going to be a recovery no matter what,'' Roales said.

The hotel's foundations were set as part of the early phase of the resort's development but remained unfinished for about 10 years.

Construction of the Belvedere restarted summer last year, said Ryosuke Kuroiwa, reservation sales manager at the Belvedere.

Development of the resort property, which encompasses 1,340 acres, began in 1989, said Jose Manzon IV, director for administration at Leopalace.

Leopalace opened in 1993 with its first golf course, according to Manzon.

Now the resort has 4 nine-hole golf courses, he said.

Leopalace management declined to say how much was spent to complete and furbish the hotel, explaining that it's not the Japanese-owned resort's style to talk about finances in public.

But at a recent regional real estate conference, organizer The Captain Company gave Leopalace an investor of the year award based on the real estate company's research that Leopalace invested $80 million in resort real estate development on Guam between 2001 and early this year.

Is Leopalace's business move a signal that Japanese investment money will start flowing back to the island, just like in the boom days of the late 1980s and early 1990s?

Probably not, assessed Nick Captain, president of The Captain Company.

Investment-wise, Captain said, ''Leopalace resort is an anomaly we shall all be thankful for,'' Captain said.

Captain said in general, it is unusual around the world to find a major resort development project under way, in part because depressed real estate prices give no incentive to investors to build.

''It is just fantastic that these people keep investing into the island,'' Captain said of Leopalace.

He said part of Leopalace's gamble is to appeal to Japan's aging population. Affluent, senior Japanese are a target market of international visitor destinations because they have the time and disposable income to travel and take longer vacations -- even buy second homes for retirement.

Besides the hotel, Leopalace has built condominiums that offer more than 200 units and has an ongoing, 190-unit condominium construction project expected to wrap up in December.

The resort also has built 55 luxury duplex homes that rent for about $2,500.

"I think it's a good gamble,'' Captain said.

Leopalace also is targeting company-sponsored group tours as well.

The Belvedere finished just in time for Leopalace to recently host one group of about a thousand tourists, whose trip was sponsored by Japan's Kaga Electronics.

Most members of the Kaga group stayed at the Belvedere while others spilled over into Leopalace condominiums and at the Westin Resort Guam, which also is owned by Leopalace Resort's parent company, Leopalace 21.

Leopalace 21 owns several hotels targeted toward business and family travelers in Japan, Kuroiwa said.

Entertainment amenities at the Belvedere include a 26-lane, state-of-the art bowling alley and a sports bar.

Entertainment facilities are open to guests but are not yet open to the public.

Hotel Belvedere's completion and the nearly complete, 190-unit condominium do not end the expansion at Leopalace.

At a recent press conference with Leopalace management, Gov. Felix Camacho announced Leopalace's plans to upgrade its sports facilities, including stadium seating, at a cost about $4 million, part of a strategy to target sports tourism.

Early next year, the resort will host Japan's most popular professional baseball team, the Yomiuri Giants.

The team is expected to train for a few weeks on Guam around February next year, just before they go on to spring training in Japan.

Guam expects to gain publicity mileage and see visitor arrivals soar by the thousands when the Giants train here.

About 150 Japanese media representatives are expected to tag along and between 20,000 to 30,000 Japanese visitors are expected to travel to see the Giants train, Guam Visitors Bureau General Manager Tony Lamorena has said.

Besides having set itself apart as Guam's multi-purpose resort, Leopalace also offers an added allure to visitors who want seclusion.

The resort only has valleys and mountains for its neighbors, and the closest residential and business neighborhood are at least several minutes' drive away.

"Aside from the nice environment, it's this feeling that you're away from it all,'' Manzon said.

October 23, 2003

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