Forbes.com
Rania, Maldives
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updated 12/6/2005 4:22:08 PM ET 2005-12-06T21:22:08

Glorious sunsets, pristine beaches and sweet evening breezes may be naturally free, but they can sure cost a lot of money.

The irony attached to many of the world's most beautiful resorts is that they are in places so remote that for centuries they were known primarily to their indigenous people, pirates and castaways. For non-natives, these were places to escape from, not travel to. And certainly, if any unlucky seaman found marooned in the Maldives in the 18th century was told that in the 21st century people would be willing to pay $10,000 to spend the night there, not to mention thousands more to travel there, he would have thought you had been spending too much time at the grog barrel.

But that's the nightly high-season rate at Rania, a new luxury resort that launched this September in the Maldives. The five-figure rate entitles guests to several hours of travel daily in the resort's yacht, unlimited treatments at the on-site spa, and all the meals and drinks they care to consume at the two gourmet restaurants. Oh yeah--and for another $750 (each), they can bring their friends along. Planning a visit in April? Great--it's not high season, but you'll still pay $8,000 a night.

Or take the newest property from One&Only Resorts, the One&Only Maldives at Reethi Rah, which was developed in conjunction with Kerzner International (nyse: KZL - news - people ), a five-star hotel and resort operator. Here, guests enjoy the 109-acre island resort and its 12 private, white-sand beaches, and take their pick of the 130 guest villas. Some are on the beach, some over the water and some have their own pools--but each one comes with a "villa host" available around the clock to make sure the Champagne is properly cooled, or to test the pool water before anyone takes the plunge. Nightly room rates here start at a comparatively reasonable $930 during the holidays. But to avoid the riff-raff entirely, plunk down $1 million, which buys five days of room, board, Champagne, wine, tennis, diving and one spa treatment each for you and your 200 nearest and dearest.

Despite the lofty prices charged (and paid) at resorts like this, they account for an absolutely tiny proportion of overall global hotel revenue, according to Sean Hennessey, who runs New York-based hotel consultancy Lodging Investment Advisors. "It's clearly under 5% and probably less, for several reasons," Hennessey says. For one reason, there aren't that many properties charging $10,000 a night. In addition, "the properties that do exist operate with a relatively low number of rooms, meaning they generate less revenue overall," says Hennessy. "Finally, a lot of properties, even if they do have high-room rates, aren't profitable in the end because of the high cost of maintaining them."

And while holiday-season rates may look like big Christmas presents to the resorts' owners, there is more to the story than those once-a-year rates, according to Brad Garner, the director of client services at Smith Travel Research, a Tennessee-based travel research firm. "They may get $10,000 a night a few nights out of the year, but when you boil it down to a monthly average, the daily rate is often closer to $500," says Garner. While Rania still hauls in a healthy $8,000 per night during the off-season, its policy of limiting bookings to groups of just nine guests at a time means that there may be long periods when the resort is empty, or only partially booked.

The cost of owning and operating a luxury resort like the ones on our list can vary considerably depending on factors such as location, staff-to-guest ratio and the number of rooms, but Hennessey estimates it could cost a minimum of several million dollars a year. While most commercial hotels are able to squeak by with an average of 0.8 or 0.9 employees per guest room, the high-end resorts on our list probably employ closer to three or four people per room, which spikes labor costs upward dramatically. In addition, for properties in remote locations, the cost of importing food and supplies necessary to maintain a certain standard of luxury could easily triple compared to what an urban hotel would pay.

While a standard Marriott (nyse: MAR - news - people ) or Hyatt property operates with profit margins of between 24% to 28% annually, the margin for a small-upscale resort is typically in the mid- to upper teens. "These properties are operated as a labor of love as opposed to an economic option" for the owners, Hennessey concludes.

However, the owners aren't all hopeless romantics with stars in their eyes instead of dollar signs. Savvy business ploys, like offering all-inclusive room rates, help to keep their guests on-property during their stay, and paying for incidentals, such as top-shelf liquor or an additional spa treatment, which aren't always included in the package. "It's called incremental revenue," explains Garner. "Keep the guest on the property, spending money on-site, helping out the resort's bottom line." While some resorts, like Turtle Island, in Fiji, include Champagne and spirits in their inclusive rates, others don't.

In the end, Garner believes it is a matter of simple economics. "The resort has amenities guests want to consume--excellent weather, sporting activities. Resorts command a higher price by virtue of where they are sitting, so they can charge more for it," he says--up to $10,000 a night, in some cases.

In addition to outrageous rates, what did we look for while compiling our list of the World's Most Expensive Resorts? First of all, we excluded urban hotels (even if their service and amenities were top-of-the-line). The Mansion at the MGM Grand, in Las Vegas, where room rates start at $5,000 a night, and which ranked first on our list of the Most Expensive U.S. Hotels, was out because of its city-center location. Then we sampled high-season rates for standard rooms at resorts all over the world. If a resort had a minimum-stay requirement during a particular season, or sold rooms only in weekly blocks, we factored that into our calculation of the nightly cost. Then, to facilitate your trip, whether you hail from New Delhi, Singapore or London, we indicated the prices in a variety of international currencies.*

Not coincidentally, the resorts we came up with have a lot more in common than their weighty rate list. Ridiculously attentive personal service (like the staff-to-guest ratio at Altamer, in Anguilla, where a butler, chef and staff of eight come with each villa), stunning scenery (like Eden Rock's cliff-top location, in St. Barts) and fabulous amenities (Laluna, in Grenada, imports its own soaps and lotions from a monastery in the Italian Alps) would set these destination resorts apart, even if their price tags were less noticeable. But if the rates were any less noticeable, would a visit feel somehow less special?

As it turns out, you can put a price on luxury, and it's a big one.

*International prices are approximate, based on the latest available currency exchange rates and were accurate as of the publication date.

© 2012 Forbes.com

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