When it opened in 1999, the Burj Al Arab was an international sensation. Sheikh Mohammed, the prime minister of the United Arab Emirates and the man behind the luxury hotel in Dubai, resolved to make it the world’s best property, bar none. At 1,054 feet high, and with a construction tab of $1 billion, it debuted as both the tallest and most expensive hotel in the world. Its dramatic, sail-inspired architecture—a nod to a J-class yacht—became a signature building for the United Arab Emirates, its answer to Sydney’s iconic Opera House. There was a six-to-one staff to guest ratio, diners arrived at the Al Mahara seafood restaurant via submarine, and more than 5,500 pounds of gold leaf covered the maximalist interiors. And it was the first time a hotel had ever been called “seven star.”
The designation allegedly came from a journalist who used the phrase in a swooning article that attempted to capture the glory of the Burj Al Arab, claiming the hotel was in a category of its own. Despite the fact that the still unnamed journalist’s story was referenced ad nauseum by other news outlets, there’s no record of any such article in media databases.
Since then, other hotels have gone on to claim the same arbitrary seven-star accolade. One resort in Turks & Caicos went so far as to borrow it for its name (the Seven Stars Resort and Spa), while Indian hotelier Oberoi recently announced plans to build a raft of properties that it claims will fit that designation. Meanwhile, travelers are happy to hashtag a humblebrag stay with #sevenstars (current IG tally: more than 47,500 posts).
We generally accept hotel ratings unquestioningly, rattling off that a hotel is a five-, six-, or seven-star property with confidence, even if we’d struggle to explain what earned it such plaudits. But where and how did the “seven-star” designation emerge, and what does it mean, if anything? And are these multi-star hotel ratings truly the ultimate definition of luxury? The answers are less straightforward than you might assume.
Is there such thing as a “seven-star hotel”?
Cynics would suggest this myth-making might sound more like marketing department smokescreen—and it’s certainly not a designation that any official body awards. “The blurb and hype of a personal six-, seven-, or even 10-star rating is just that: puff,” says Jules Maury, the luxury expert who runs Scott Dunn Private. “There are no official seven-star hotels.”
Indeed, the most famous bodies worldwide that rank hotels have no designations beyond five stars—if they use stars at all. Many of these organizations are household names, including Forbes and AAA, which use both stars and diamonds Other new entrants, like the just-launched World’s 50 Best Hotels, rank hotels in an entirely different, qualitative way: They use an anonymous panel of industry insiders whose votes are tallied to create the eventual ranking.
Now, a storied player has announced its entry into the field: Michelin. The French firm that, like AAA, has its origins in motoring—in this case, making tires—began offering rankings on restaurants as an amenity to drivers. Now it’s moving into hotels, confirming the sense that such a move was afoot when it gobbled up boutique booking engine Tablet Hotels five years ago, an inkling that such efforts might be underway. The company is set to reveal its selection of 5,000 hotels across 120 countries next year. It will award keys, not stars, to hotels, based on five criteria, though a spokesperson couldn’t confirm the planned range of the rankings.
The history of five-star hotel rankings
While the “seven-star hotel” appears to be more of a myth than anything, five-star benchmarking is surprisingly recent—and subjective, too, according to an organization’s own criteria. It was only in the 1950s when what’s now Exxon Mobil underwrote a Mobil Travel Guide guide to hotels for drivers in the United States. The authors opted to rank their stays on a scale of five stars—nodding, probably, to the five exclamation marks used more than a century earlier by British travel writer Mariana Starke, who took an opinionated romp through France and Italy in the 1820s.
While the “seven-star hotel” appears to be more of a myth than anything, five-star benchmarking is surprisingly recent—and subjective, too.
Mobile Travel Guide authors Marion and Alden Stevens soon hired a team of reviewers to work for them on the project, and hotels scrambled to secure impressive rankings and, as a result, bookings. The power of those ratings became clear so quickly that countless other systems emerged. There was the U.K.’s answer to AAA (the abbreviated AA). In 1979, the Swiss Hotel Association launched the first-ever country-specific ratings system for hotels there. Other countries have followed: The French Atout France body is publicly run via France’s tourism board, and New Zealand’s is administered by Qualmark, a subsisidary of the government’s tourism arm. But even though ratings systems have become enormously impactful for hotels, there’s no independent body overseeing the ever-proliferating number of rating systems, and so there’s no way to verify or police the quality of ranking systems of various organizations. Think of them as the travel world’s answer to the Golden Globes: starry and compelling but open to abuse.
Will there ever be an independent hotel star-rating system?
There have been attempts to create a globally recognized independent system: The best known is the Hotelstars Union, formed in 2009, and now operating across a number of mostly European Union countries, from the Baltics to Malta and Greece. The union has clear parameters for its rankings, including the top tier, five stars, made publicly visible on its website here. Maria Dinböck, secretary general of the organization, told AFAR she considered it “unwise to increase the maximum number of stars achievable for each new extreme luxury hotel by one or more levels, as if the classification were moving upwards on a Richter scale.”
Then there’s the World Hotel Rating, also established in 2009, mostly to focus on sifting five-star hotels to better gauge their quality. Despite much fanfare at launch, the organization has made little concrete progress since then; it did not respond to multiple requests for comment from AFAR, and its website is a single holding page.
Still, the problem with regulating hotel rating systems is that it’s not in anyone’s interests (or profit) to do so. The opacity of criteria, and the ability to self-certify, are convenient for most hoteliers. Take the Hotel Seven Stars Galleria in Milan, which claims to be Italy’s only seven-star hotel. Dig deeper, though, and it isn’t a ranking issued by the tourism agency or Forbes. Rather, the owners reached out to an independent Geneva-based company to custom-build criteria that would verify the property as a seven-starrer: Is it in an iconic structure that adds value to the city, and are there more suites than rooms? Sure enough, it emerged with the exact seven-star designation as planned.