Friday, July 30, 2010

Villas on the sea

Executive magazine

If you're investing millions of US dollars on a yacht, shelling out a couple hundred dollars for an extra pair of Sebago Docksiders is hardly a financial concern.

Leather slip-on deck shoes are the preferred form of footwear among the yachting crowd. Yet when it comes to luxury yachts, you need two pairs: one for on deck, the other dockside. The reasoning is straightforward. The fine grain, smoothly sanded wooden decks that are scrubbed down on a daily basis show up the slightest specks of non-maritime dirt. Owners who want their pricey investments kept pristine have two choices: go barefoot or it's shoe-changing time.

An ocean of choice

But if you don't want to change shoes more often than a model on a photo shoot when going from sea to shore and vice versa, then you can opt for marble over wood.

In fact, in the world of luxury yachts, any whim can be catered to. One client of Italian yacht company Benetti spent a further $4.2 million to have his $7.8 million, 93-foot yacht kitted out in marble and stone – although not so he could wander the decks of his yacht in a pair of soiled moccasins, but just because he liked marble.

A yacht is like a floating villa, so each customer has their own demands, like aquariums, jacuzzis, helium beds, even submarines to heli-pads, and everything in-between,” said Marcello Maggi, president of sales and marketing at International Shipyards Ancona, Italy during the Beirut Boat Show 2010.

As Mustafa Chehab of Chehab Marine, representative of British made Princess yachts put it, “boats go from $160,00 to whatever figure you can think of.”

The demand for such highly specialized, and exceedingly expensive, yachts is not as high among Lebanese as in the Gulf countries, with the average price of a yacht sold in Lebanon $1 million to $2 million, according to Maggi. Ancona's yachts on the other hand start at $19 million, while Benetti's starting prices are in the millions.

The disparity in the yachting markets between Lebanon and the Gulf was exemplified at the Abu Dhabi Boat Show this year, where several “concept yachts” were launched, including the 383-foot ES117 mega-yacht designed by Lebanon's Elie Saab.

One of three Saab designed yachts, the ES117 is the height of decadence. Two private suites on two decks are for the yacht's owner, along with 10 guest suites, a swimming pool, whirlpool, theater, spa and gym. Topping it all out is a heli-pad, submarine port, space for a car and water sports area.

Sales of such concept yachts are few and far between, with big name brand Sunseeker Middle East's largest seller the 88-foot yacht out of its 43-feet to 170-feet range. Lebanon accounts for some 30 percent of the brand's regional sales, according to general manager Francesco Pitea.

Boating back to Beirut

The Gulf may boast the clientele to pay tens of millions of dollars for mega yachts, but Lebanon is still a port of call for international yacht builders, with all the major names descending on Dbayeh marina for the Beirut Boat Show, the first to be held in three years.

Beirut is a center of gravity in the region so a good selling spot, and Lebanon is the Cote d'Azur of the Middle East,” said Maggi. “In Dubai, you sell yachts to the people of Dubai, in Qatar to Qataris, but here is for the whole Middle East,” he added.

Lebanon's growing tourism sector and geographical positioning make the country a perfect base to moor a yacht and to cruise around the Mediterranean sea. However, despite Lebanon having dozens of small and medium sized marinas – from hotel to private marinas – they lack infrastructure and facilities to cater to luxury yachters. “Lebanon needs more and bigger marinas, more prestige,” said Maggi.

This is set to change with the opening of the Beirut marina development and the Tourism Ministry pledging to back the development of new marinas, the first to be in Jounieh. “Everyone's looking forward to the opening of the Beirut marina as many marinas are partially or semi-full,” said Chehab.

With the Lebanese economy going through a boom period and expecting record numbers of tourists this year, sales of yachts have been on the up, growing by 14.5 percent in 2009 and 40 percent in the first quarter of 2010 on last year. Sales are projected to grow a further 20 percent in 2010, according to government figures.

Further driving growth is the strength of the dollar over the euro, making it a good time to place an order. “People are rushing to buy bigger boats to receive next year, so the situation is pretty good,” said Chehab.

To get a luxury yacht designed to your specifications and interior designer wants, patience is required. In the case of Benetti yachts, it is a one year wait for a 90-foot yacht, and up to three years for anything bigger, said the brand's sales manager Tomasso Bilotta. According to Chehab, yachts are then often exchanged after a year or two for a brand new model.

Sailing to greener waters

The high price tag for luxury yachts has as much to do with the materials used and high skilled labor as the technology now on board, from chart plotters to sensory lighting to entertainment systems. Benetti for instance has invested $540 million over the past 12 years to retain its classic design while keeping an eye on innovation.

The biggest trend in recent years is for displacement yachts for cruising over faster yachts. “Maybe people are more environmentally friendly, or sensitive to fuel consumption, or don't want to go fast but have comfort instead,” said Bilotta.

In line with growing environmental awareness globally, greener yachts will be the boats of the future. “Customers are asking for cleaner boats and we can't ignore the state of the world,” said Maggi. “We are using hybrid engines and developing a boat with zero emissions, which is impossible, but we're trying to get close to that. We're also trying to pollute less when we build,” he added.

Indeed, Benetti's Blue Bay yacht, which was on display at the Beirut show, has fuel tanks that hold 38,000-liters, while Saab's ES117 mega-yacht has a fuel capacity of a staggering 762,000 liters. For now at least, it seems that the traditional focus on speed, comfort and glamour is destined to prevail over environmental concerns in the world of luxury yachting.

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