VOYAGE PACIFIC: CATERING TO THE EXTREMELY RICH AND THEIR SUPER-YACHTS

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By Michael Field

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (March 29, 2002 – Fiji Times/Agence France-Presse)---Larry Ellison might be persuaded to park his boat in Fiji some day soon.

Big deal?

If you own a florist business in Nadi it might be worth knowing that the flower arrangements need to be changed every day on board. That’s about $500 worth of flowers each day. American dollars that is.

Then there would be the contract for filling the fruit bowls; that runs to a couple of hundred a day.

Larry’s boat Katana is worth around US$ 100 million -- small change for a man whose Oracle Corporation has given him a personal worth, according to Forbes, of just under US$ 21 billion.

Among the comforts of Katana -- its name is spelled out in a bold white and red Japanese logo -- is a television lounge with a huge plasma-screen and its two-level owner’s apartment. It has a gym and a basketball court too.

For the engineering inclined the Blohm and Voss, German built ship, can push through the water at an impressive 35 knots -- thanks to its GE gas turbine engine -- yes, exactly the same as the engine hanging off an Air Pacific jumbo.

It comes in at 26 on the world’s top 100 super-yachts. Consider this too: maintaining Katana each year costs around US$ 10 million, and much of that these days is going across the Auckland waterfront.

Super-yachts by definition are vessels of generally 30 meters (about 100 feet) plus worth between US$ 5 million and US$ 100 million. Mostly they are not yachts; some are as big as small naval frigates and are as fast. Others you would be a bit dicey about leaving the side of the wharf on.

When New Zealand last defended the America’s Cup in 2000 around 100 mainly American super-yachts were in Auckland, watching the racing and creating legends that many a retailer still fantasies over to this day.

Lane Finley, executive director of the New Zealand Marine Export Group (MAREX), told The Fiji Times that with the cup due to get under way again later this year, there will be around 140 super-yachts, many of them in Europe, floating around in the Hauraki Gulf.

"Some of them will want to go to Fiji," he said.

"Fiji has marvelous cruising grounds and the kind of places that owners and super-yacht captains find appealing."

With an eye to the eventual day that New Zealand has to pass on the America’s Cup, MAREX has come up with "Voyage Pacific," a scheme to join the major South Pacific nations into a kind of pilgrims trail for the extremely rich. They want to lure the rich out of the Mediterranean and Caribbean and into the Pacific.

Among those in "Voyage Pacific" are Tahiti Tourism, Air New Zealand and Fiji’s Musket Cove.

They’ve just produced a glitzy 150-page booklet detailing the pleasures and, more significantly, the maritime specifications and services available in the Galapagos Islands, French Polynesia, Samoa, the Cook Islands, Vanuatu, Tonga, New Caledonia and New Zealand.

And there is a chapter on Fiji.

Noting its "Cannibal Isles" reputation, it adds: "In more recent times, political upheavals in Fiji have also impacted on the country. A coup attempt in 2000 -- which was followed by elections in 2001 -- might well have dented the economy and political structure of Fiji, but failed to cool the welcome that tourists have enjoyed for the last century.

"It remains a fabulous place to visit."

Mr. Finley pulled no punches over what political instability did for super-yacht owners.

"Its very much a concern for them, " he said, adding that the boat insurers would also be keenly interested. Owners also wanted to operate in an environment where they believed the government recognized their importance. Problems would drive them away.

"They wouldn’t give a second chance," Mr. Finley said.

The book though describes Fiji as a yachting Mecca, listing the marinas at the Suva Yacht Club, Vuda Point Marina, Levuka Marina and Musket Cove.

Its readership is revealed in some of the detail too; like the fact that Nadi has a 2,300 meter (7,590 foot) long runway with "no restrictions on private jets landing or refueling."

What Fiji lacks, though, are the kind of haul out facilities super-yacht owners need. It also lacks the increasingly sophisticated skills for maintaining and refitting super-yachts.

But New Zealand is now the fifth largest builder of super-yachts in the world; currently around 500 are being built around the world.

Mr. Finley said one of the reasons super-yachts have stayed out of the region until now is that owners "perceived the Pacific as a vast wasteland with no access to facilities at all."

Part of it is true: sailing from Panama to French Polynesia is 25 days, with nothing in between.

Promises of exotic and beautiful islands to visit gave way to a notion that there was no fuel: pulling up to an atoll wharf and telling the bloke to "fill her up" was not viable.

The lure of the America’s Cup bought them out of their traditional safe grounds -- although many of the super-yachts were simply lifted onto the back of a giant ship which bought many of them out.

Mr. Finley wants them to keep coming and not just to New Zealand.

"What has developed is an exquisite new cruising destination encompassing the lovely South Pacific islands as the ‘playground,’ with New Zealand’s high-tech refit and service facilities as the ‘workshop’."

He says the impact of the super-yachts on small economies "can be quite substantial."

There are around 5,000 super yachts globally, but only around 2,000 actively move between locations.

Mr. Finley says the wealth is an extravagance few people fully appreciate.

One example: during the last cup a super-yacht owner chartered a helicopter to take his guests fishing from remote rocks 100 kilometers (330 miles) from Auckland. They would spend the morning fishing and then fly to an exclusive resort on an island for lunch before returning to Auckland.

Aucklanders dine out on stories of super-yacht crewmembers heading up to the nearby New World supermarket and spending NZ$ 20,000 (US$ 8,820) for that night’s party.

Although they are sea going vessels, Mr. Finley says they really are "private hotels."

Or international offices, where the owner has the full communications facilities along with the ability to cater to large business functions, travel and accommodations.

It used to be that "Ma and Pa cruisers" used to sail from the U.S. into the Pacific, and Mr. Finley, who has sailed much of the Pacific, recalled they used to be recalled for "a kind of bleak existence." Hard sailing, it used to be thought of.

Annually there are still around 450 cruising yachts transiting the South Pacific, but Mr. Finley says they are no longer backpacking type operations.

"These people have a lot of money too," he says.

Yachts have always been thought of as great holes in water in which owners pour in lots of money. It seems it could be the Pacific’s turn to make really big money now.

They’re handy visitors to have.

Michael Field New Zealand/South Pacific Correspondent Agence France-Presse E-mail: afp.nz@clear.net.nz  Phone: (64 21) 688438 Fax: (64 21) 694035 Website: http://www.afp.com/english/  Website: http://www.michaelfield.org 

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