Ultra-wealthy set sights on private islands as they seek isolation to escape COVID-19 ravaging the world

Cheryl Arcibal, South China Morning Post

Posted at Feb 23 2021 09:14 PM

Club Paradise Palawan is a private island resort located in Coron. Handout

Global inquiries for private islands have doubled over the past year and the trend is likely to continue as the super-rich seek to isolate themselves from the coronavirus pandemic ravaging the world, but preferences are changing.

While privacy and exclusivity remain the main criteria, the world’s ultra-wealthy want to be “close but not too close” to a mainland for quick and reliable access to medical facilities in case of an emergency, according to property brokers dealing exclusively in the segment.

Most of the islands sold last year were typically priced in the low millions and close to the mainland, according to Sotheby’s International Realty. The agency sold one island last year, but expects to sell more this year as vaccination programmes are rolled out and travel restrictions are lifted. Sotheby’s currently has over 20 private islands in its portfolio.

“With Covid-19 we definitely found people are looking for multigenerational destinations where they can go with their grandparents, parents and small children and feel safe and be away from Covid-19 or away from the chance of catching it,” said David Forbes, chairman of Savills Private Office, who currently is looking for suitable islands for two clients – one each from Singapore and Europe.

He said that the biggest challenge for families looking to own a private island is more medical than anything else.

“If somebody becomes unwell and they need to get to a doctor or to a hospital, which is perhaps three miles offshore, and you’re relying on being transported by boat or a helicopter, sometimes that is not possible,” Forbes said. “And if you have an emergency medical situation, then it’s a big problem.”

While owning a private island is a dream for many, the practicality and reality of owning one often deter potential buyers. Depending on its location – whether in Asia, Europe or in the Caribbean – and the infrastructure already available on it, a private island can cost between US$15 million and US$50 million, according to Forbes.

The cost of developing an island complete with amenities and infrastructure could work out to another US$50 million. Annual maintenance and staffing expenses could cost between US$200,000 and US$1 million. And completing the sale of an island is never straightforward and can take anywhere between three months and five years.

But despite the prohibitive costs and the time required to close a deal, Knight Frank said that it had seen a sevenfold surge in interest for private islands in the last 12 months.

“The pandemic has made people re-evaluate where they want to live and spend time, and the appeal of island living has never really been greater among ultra high net worth individuals,” said Edward de Mallet Morgan, partner at the consultancy.

According to Sotheby’s, islands close to the mainland of the US, Canada and Europe were getting most of the attention.

“Some agents have found enquiries for their private island listings to have doubled in the past year,” said George Damianos, president and CEO of Daminanos Sotheby’s International Realty in Nassau, the Bahamas.

“Before the pandemic, owning a private island could be seen as the ultimate sign of wealth and luxury, but the pandemic has broadened this out widely as people now look towards private islands as providing the ultimate amount of seclusion, space and privacy,” Damianos said.

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