PHUKET PULLS IN THE WORLD'S SUPER-RICH
More high-end projects attracting notice
Story by ALASDAIR FORBES
Ten years ago in Phuket, the most expensive home you could buy would have been a villa in the Baan Kata development. Prices for these luxury homes started at around 10 million baht _ at that time about US$250,000.
Today the most expensive home on the market in ''Greater Phuket'' _ Phuket and the coastline just north of the island, in Phangnga province _ is Villa Natai. This 6,000-square-metre home with a private golf course and bowling alley goes for $25 million _ equivalent to 100 of those homes in Baan Kata.
Villa Natai was built for Eric Levine, the founder of California Fitness (California WOW! in Thailand). The villa has a 350-square-metre fitness centre.
Nick Anthony of Phuket's Indigo Real Estate, which has the task of selling this aircraft-hangar-sized house, said, ''Over the past four years the second home market has suddenly expanded.''
The Belgian architect Jean Michel Gathy is renowned for his resort designs, including this home created for a wealthy European art dealer on the west coast of Phuket.
Bill Barnett, co-founder of C9 Hotelworks, a property and hotel consultancy, agrees. ''We've seen quite a dramatic shift in Phuket from people buying as primary investors,'' he says. ''Now people are looking for investment properties. They're buying investment yields. This is not unique to Phuket. It's global.''
Why Phuket? ''Wealth attracts wealth,'' Mr Barnett says. ''Look at the number of private aircraft landing [in Phuket] these days. It's around 500 a year.'' Three years ago such flights could have been counted on the fingers of one hand.
''These people already have homes in Tuscany, Bordeaux, Queenstown or Whistler. They have expendable income _ for them the amounts are relatively insignificant. And Phuket is growing in sophistication.''
This increasing sophistication allows the very rich, especially those already based in Asia, to see Phuket as a place where business mixes with pleasure.
One example is Canadian Alan Zeman, a highly visible figure in Hong Kong. Chandara, his home on Phuket's west coast, reportedly built at a cost of $12 million, incorporates full offices that allow it to serve also as his business base in Phuket. On the island he has completed an upscale shopping centre, and is now building a high-end property project.
A more recent arrival is Richard Li, son of Li Ka-shing, Hong Kong's wealthiest person. Richard Li _ himself ranked by Forbes as 754th-richest person in the world _ bought a villa at Samsara, on a headland just north of Patong. He is now in the process of taking over Thai Muang Golf Course in Phangnga, which will, naturally, have expensive villas for sale around the fairways and along the nearby beach.
New Zealand brothers Richard and Christopher Chandler, who together rank as the 488th-richest people in the world, have bought eight homes at the Trisara resort on Phuket's west coast. Villa prices there start at $4 million.
Rising with the boom in high-end homes _ and helping to fuel it _ is a boom in branded resorts with villas for sale attached, such as the JW Marriott near the airport and the Movenpick in Karon. More recent arrivals in this market are Hyatt, Shangri-La and Raffles.
Adrian Zecha is credited with inventing the whole resort-and-villas concept 20 years ago at Phuket's Amanpuri. He's now involved in an ultra-luxury hotel under construction on the east coast of the island. The Yamu, as it's called, will be run by GHM, Mr Zecha's hotel management company.
The Yamu, next to the Cape Yamu development, where 26 villas have already sold for prices ranging from $3 million to $6 million, will be surrounded by two types of privately owned villas.
For those looking for a complete escape there are the Club Villas, priced at around $2 million, which will form an exclusive hotel within the hotel. The much more spacious Villa Estates, each consisting of a main pavilion and three guest pavilions _ and four swimming pools _ will sell for $8 million and up.
The first booking for a Villa Estate at The Yamu was made before marketing had even begun. Word got out and someone with cash to spare wanted to get in early.
Part of the allure of such high-end property is not just the hotel brands, but the other famous brands attached to them. Campbell Kane, owners of The Yamu, have packed in a trio of heavy-hitting names.
Apart from the Zecha/Aman connection, the design is by Frenchman Philippe Starck, one of the most famous designers in the world. The architect is Belgium's Jean Michel Gathy, renowned for his resort designs worldwide, especially for Aman.
Mr Gathy has already done work on the island. On the west coast, he was architect and designer of the art dealer Eric Smulders van Heer Janspolder's large cliff-edge home. The Gathy name is clearly one that adds lustre.
Mr Starck sets the tone for this kind of ''beyond mere homes'' development. He comments, ''Some people think that architecture is about aluminium, steel and glass. I don't think so. I think it's about love and poetry.'' His designs, he says, are for ''intelligent people; the smart tribe''.
Intelligent, smart and very wealthy, more and more members of the tribe are heading for Phuket.
Alasdair Forbes was managing editor of the Phuket Gazette newspaper for eight years. He now runs the Phuket-based editorial consultancy Forbes Communications.