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Luxury Yachts Find Asian Buyers as Ranks of Wealthy Swell

Yachts in Singapore
Yachts at ONE°15 Marina Club at Sentosa Cove during the Singapore Yacht Show 2011 are anchored against the backdrop of luxury condominiums. Photographer: Munshi Ahmed/Bloomberg

Singapore businessman Adrian Lee Chye Cheng, 33, is the super-yacht industry’s dream come true.

Young, wealthy and passionate about boats, he embodies an emerging market that shipyards and brokers see looming large on the horizon.

“The new market is in Asia,” Lee said in an interview on one of the panoramic decks of the Ocean Paradise, a 55-meter luxury yacht he and his brother Lionel acquired two months ago.

Wealth among Asia-Pacific millionaires may top North America’s as soon as next year, according to a report published last month by Cap Gemini SA and Royal Bank of Canada. Asians with at least $1 million in investable assets are set to see their riches climb to $15.9 trillion by 2015 from $12 trillion last year, the 2013 Asia-Pacific Wealth Report says. North American high net-worth individuals held $12.7 trillion in 2012.

With rising riches has come an appetite for expensive toys. Take Lee’s yacht. With a charter price of $300,000 a week, the Ocean Paradise was custom-built by Benetti for 34 million euros ($46 million). It was being promoted at last week’s Monaco Yacht Show -- one of the most important in the world for the biggest luxury boats -- as a “world of cool.” It has a jacuzzi, a Zen garden, floor-to-ceiling windows, mood lighting, a carbon-fiber dining table and a vintage Space Invaders video game.

Lee’s purchase is seen as a harbinger of future sales for an industry more associated with billionaires from the U.S., Europe -- especially Russia -- and the Middle East.

The biggest regional growth in terms of the number of super-yachts delivered last year was in Asia, according to the latest available figures from brokerage Camper & Nicholsons.

Acquired Taste

“The yacht industry is very peculiar; it’s something you have to learn, understand and feel,” Lee said. “You wouldn’t go out and buy a yacht if you don’t know enough. I’ve seen people buy a Ferrari on impulse or go to an air show and like a plane and just buy it. A yacht takes more time.”

Shipbuilders and brokers in Monaco concurred. The Asian market for super-yachts, loosely defined as boats stretching more than 24 meters, is one that, although slow to cultivate, will have huge potential amid a boom in high-net-worth individuals. The biggest prize will be China, they said.

“Southeast Asia and China are becoming more and more important, although China isn’t developing as fast as everyone was hoping,” Fabio Ermetto, chairman of brokerage Fraser Yachts, said in an interview. “There’s a feeling that in the next couple of years we’ll get more and more clients who’ve never owned any kind of boat before and will invest in a new super-yacht.”

Lee’s Background

This wasn’t the case for Lee. Ocean Paradise is an upgrade from Lee’s previous boat, the 37-meter Ocean Dream, which he sold in 2010.

An executive director of Loyz Energy Limited, a Singapore-based oil and natural gas explorer, Lee is also on the board of restaurant-operator and caterer Select Group Limited, where he represents closely-held Jit Sun Investments, according to the company’s websites. His brother Lionel helps run oil-services company Ezra Holdings that provides vessels and installs deep-sea equipment for the offshore industry.

The brothers are also directors of Raimon Land Pcl, a Thai builder of luxury condominiums and resorts in Bangkok and Phuket. Giving the Ocean Paradise a contemporary look -- with a black-and-white theme, a blob-shaped sofa and a river-stone setting for the bathtub in the master cabin -- was inspired by the brothers’ boutique hotel, restaurant and condo holdings, Adrian said. He hopes the yacht will gain “icon” status.

Asia Rising

Out of the 169 super-yachts delivered in 2012, the regions of 141 owners were identified, according to the widely-tracked Camper & Nicholsons’ study. About a third came from Europe.

The biggest growth was in Asia, where 11 percent were delivered last year compared with 3 percent in 2011, it said. Of the 125 owners’ nationalities identified, 14 percent were Americans, followed closely by Russians.

Those from Hong Kong and mainland China came in seventh and eighth with a total of about 9 percent of deliveries.

“We’re on the cusp of the Chinese infiltrating the market,” said Peter Thompson, a partner at brokerage Worth Avenue Yachts, who was showing yachts to clients at the Monaco show. “It’s in its infancy. There is an enormous amount of money but the guys who made it are very careful with it.”

He cited an example of a Macau casino owner in his eighties who is “hesitating about buying a boat.”

“I think if he was American he would just go for it,” Thompson said.

Mooring Space

Among issues facing Asian yacht owners is a shortage of mooring space at the region’s marinas, and in the case of China, an absence of “legal status for the yachts along the coastline,” he said.

Lee says he hasn’t decided yet whether the Ocean Paradise will remain in the Mediterranean Sea and the Caribbean on charter or go to Asia. If the price is right, he says he may even sell the boat in spite of the three years of work with Benetti overseeing construction and design.

At the time of the Monaco trade show, Lee said he had spent all of two full days aboard and has been too hard at work to invite friends to celebrate her launch.

Would people in his parents’ generation have invested in the same way?

“I don’t think so,” he said. “It’s a lot of work to build a boat.”

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