Superyacht Times: How Hong Kong could ignite a yachting boom in China

The relationship between China and superyachts is curious – but it might not be for long. Per capita the country has the second-highest concentration of billionaires, trailing closely behind the United States and far outpacing anywhere else in the world. If we include Hong Kong and Macau into the mix, then there are a recorded 698 members of the highest wealth percentile that call the nation their home. Wealth’s not just concentrated at this top strata either, as ten percent of the world’s millionaires also reside in China – the country has the second-largest economy in the world.

It’s also a yachting paradise with thousands of islands to explore, miles of sandy beaches, plenty of thriving cities and diverse fauna and flora. There has been a growing enthusiasm for yachting, especially since the turn of the century, and some heady predictions were made with some expecting the number of local yacht owners to exceed six figures.  

An ambitious estimate when we consider that just ten years ago there were only 3,000 Chinese-owned yachts of all sizes, so expecting an increase of 97,000 was a tad optimistic. This is not to downplay the steep curve that has taken place, far from it. Since the turn of the century, Yachting was growing in popularity in China and new clubs were springing up all over the coastline– Qingdao International Yacht Club and Silver Channel Sailing Club, to name just two – while the more well-established clubs saw their memberships swelling.

There were also a number of sporting events, regattas and conventions opening their doors for the first time, the China Cup International Regatta, held in Shenzhen being a point in case as it was the first-ever international big sailing event to be held in China, which kicked-off in 2007 and has been held annually ever since.

“When I first arrived here, around 30 years ago, the sailing scene was mostly expat, say 70 percent expat to 30 percent Chinese sailing,”  Suzy Rayment, Executive Director of the Asia-Pacific Superyacht Association (APSA), told SYT. “Now the ratios have flipped and it's 70 percent Chinese with 30 percent expat sailing, and we see a lot of locals from Shenzhen come to Hong Kong to sail for the weekend. That was until 2019 when the borders were closed in response to the Covid-19 outbreak.” 

While yachting has continued to grow in popularity in Hong Kong and southern China, interest in superyachts hasn’t been as strong. Momentum for larger pleasure vessels got hindered – politically that is. Bloomberg wrote a damning report back in 2019, painting quite the macabre portrait of the superyacht sector in China. Not without reason either as Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the Communist Party, was waging a war against opulence, building stigma against showcasing wealth, and slapped on some heavy-weight taxes on luxury commodities to hit back financially too. Owning a superyacht is arguably the most ostentatious plaything and they’re not easy to conceal. At the time, Gordon Hui, former head of Sunseeker Asia, reported to Bloomberg that “since the early 2000s he’s shuttered three dealerships in China and hasn’t sold a yacht for use in China since 2015.”

A gulf emerged between the growing interest of yachting and the uprate in ownership in China post-2012; however, ironically, at the time of Bloomberg’s publication things began changing in China and with the Chinese yacht market as the pandemic reignited the desire for superyachts. With lockdown measures and border closures, people all over the world were looking at ways to enjoy their time with their families safely and away from the crowds – China was no different.

A major thorn in yachting’s side though is that “the country hasn’t developed a proper maritime infrastructure, making it can be a logistical nightmare to cruise,” Rayment said. But the story is different for Hong Kong. As of the 8th December 2016, the Hong Kong Marine Department finally relaxed the rules for visiting yachts and their crew, as a result of lobbying from the Asia-Pacific Superyacht Association (APSA), which was spearheaded by Colin Dawson,  (ex-chairman of APS). The yachting ecosystem is certainly blooming and Hong Kong is acting as a stronghold, a steady footing to invigorate interest in maritime leisure. Being a special administrative region, Hong Kong is excluded from the heavy levies imposed on luxury goods and it benefits from having deeper relationships with the European and US counterparts of the yachting industry.

Adding more might to the region is the fact that it’s a gorgeous area to cruise with more than 250 islands to explore. “During the pandemic with restricted mobility, yacht owners were exploring their native waters and reminded how nice Hong Kong actually is for yachting,” Rayment said

Mike Simpson, Founder & CEO of Simpson Marine, also saw this, “Asian and Asia-based expatriates, all wanting to enjoy local cruising grounds as regular travelling patterns are restricted due to the Pandemic. Yachting has come to be seen as a safe haven and a way to escape from the harsh realities of life ashore in these challenging times.” Eric Noyel, Founder of Asia Marine & Managing Director of Fraser Asia, saw this trend reflected in sales. “Hong Kong has been crazy for the last two years. 500 new boats arrived – mostly Italian and American – and were sold in the city. There have been record sales across the board for yacht brokers in Hong Kong. I’d say that we’ve had the equivalent of 20 years’ worth of sales in the last two years.”

The Hong Kong Boating Industry Association estimates that there are close to 10,000 registered leisure marine vessels (the majority of which will be vessels under 24 metres) and, according to a yacht market study published by Global Industry Analysts, by 2026 China is expected to have a yacht market that sings to the tune of $1.2 billion. Some major players have pledged to bolster their presence in Asia as they look to capitalise on this growth. Massimo Perotti, CEO of Sanlorenzo, for one, said in a recent press conference that he expects Asia to be a much larger market in the near future. 

China has a way to go through to support this. But it seems as though the cultural stigma is dissipating. Hong Kong has definitely played a role in this as the local taste for yachting has continued to grow over the years, and has just gone through a period of acceleration. There is a big hindrance for the region, mind: an underdeveloped yachting infrastructure.

“We need more marinas, repair and refit yards, and better local crew training but we also need regional governments to understand the potential of this amazing industry and to provide their support in facilitating cross-border cruising with friendly tax, immigration, and operating regulations for superyachts,” Simpson wrote in the APSA Guide 2021.

The Chinese yacht market has potential and could be a major industry in the coming years and is definitely a region to watch, but it does need work. While the Global Industry Analysts’ prediction of $1.2 billion certainly causes for celebration – it’s still just half of the current US yacht market, albeit a more mature market, but with a similar demographic of billionaires. If the Global Industry Analysts are correct with their predictions, then the Chinese market will be around €10 million less than Germany in 2026. This is not to dismiss the growing market as there is scope for acceleration.  “Not all Chinese millionaires and billionaires are going to buy a yacht, but they're getting more and more exposure. Even if they’re not buying a yacht, their friends might be.”

Written by Alexander Griffiths 12 April 2022 | 22:00 (AEST)

Reprinted courtesy of SuperyachtTimes.com


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