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For the price of 'a good car', you can buy your own island to escape the pandemic

The pandemic had led to a spike in interest among high-net-worth individuals looking to acquire their own private island, with some boasting agricultural land for owners to potentially grow their own food in the name of self-sufficiency.

For the price of 'a good car', you can buy your own island to escape the pandemic

Pumpkin Island, an eco-retreat in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, is on the market for A$25 million (S$24.6 million). It is described by its current owners as a “safe haven” from the pandemic. (Photo: Tourism and Events Queensland)

With its pristine beaches, coral reefs and 32 acres of lush tropical gardens, Fiji’s Mai Island could be the perfect place to hunker down and see out the coronavirus pandemic.

The island, which has previously been on the market for just over US$4 million (S$5.4 million), is one of a host of offshore retreats being marketed to the super-rich as ideal spots to escape the ravages of COVID-19.

The South Pacific, Caribbean and remote parts of the US and Europe are among the most popular destinations, according to real estate agents who are rushing to tap the surge in demand for private hideaways even as the world economy goes into a deep recession.

Trayor Lesnock, founder of Platinum Luxury Auctions, which conducted the online sale of Mai Island in July, said the pandemic had led people to reassess their lives and pursue the things they had fantasised about but always held off from doing.

“Owning an island has long been considered cool and desirable but it’s often been a whimsical dream,” he said. “But with COVID-19 it’s starting to look a lot more practical, as people rush to find private spaces for themselves and keep a distance from others.”

Fiji’s Mai Island could be the perfect place to hunker down and see out the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo: Platinum Luxury Auctions)

It is not just tropical paradises with fabulous weather that are tempting the wealthy. A mystery buyer recently snapped up Horse Island, a 157-acre private hideaway off the south-west coast of Ireland that had a €5.5 million (S$8.93 million) asking price. As well as an extensive main residence, Horse Island has six guest houses, a tennis court, helicopter pad and enough space for anyone who wishes to safely distance during a pandemic.

“There’s obviously a thought process in people’s minds – particularly those that can afford these multimillion-euro properties – that they can just get away and self-isolate,” said Callum Bain, a surveyor at Colliers International, the real estate agent that helped sell the island. 

He said he did not know the buyer’s motivation but pointed out that Horse Island was previously an agricultural holding – meaning the new owner would be able to grow enough food to be self-sufficient if they wanted to. Its location close to an airport in nearby Cork city was also an attraction for anyone with access to a private jet, he added. “Owning an island has long been considered cool and desirable but it’s often been a whimsical dream. But with COVID-19 it’s starting to look a lot more practical, as people rush to find private spaces fo

But COVID-19 has thrown up complex travel challenges for would-be buyers tempted to relocate offshore, even for those with their own transport. Some nations, including Japan, New Zealand and Australia, have closed their borders to non-residents, making physical viewings of potential island purchases impossible in some cases.

The new owner of Horse Island reportedly bought it without visiting in person, while potential foreign-based bidders for Mai Island will not be allowed to set foot there before putting in an offer.

“We’ve sold some less expensive islands in Scandinavia and Canada recently to buyers who looked at photos and bought the properties,” said Farhad Vladi, a German businessman who said he had sold more than 3,000 islands in a career spanning 50 years. “But people generally want to visit more expensive islands before they buy.”

He agreed the pandemic had led to a spike in interest among high-net worth individuals looking to acquire their own island, but noted how the ultra-rich often preferred to rent their offshore hideaways due to security concerns, particularly if they were well-known.

He also insisted that owning your own private island was not as far-fetched as many people would have thought. “You don't need to be a billionaire to buy an island. If you’re able to buy a very good car you can buy an island,” he said.

The living and dining areas of the villa on Mai Island. (Photo: Platinum Luxury Auctions)

For example, a small island off the coast of Finland was currently for sale via Vladi Private Islands for less than €100,000. At the other end of the scale, a 1,100-acre Greek island retreat in the Ionian Sea would set you back €45 million.

Agents said private islands in countries that had avoided the worst of the pandemic were proving popular with would-be buyers, with Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific islands remaining relatively virus-free.

Pumpkin Island, an eco-retreat in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park that was put on the market with a price tag of A$25 million (S$24.6 million), was described by its current owners as a “safe haven” from the pandemic.

“We’ve weathered the [coronavirus] storm well and people are looking for places where they will have space and where they don’t feel like they’re on top of someone else . . . I definitely think that’s an attraction,” said Laureth Rumble, whose family owns Pumpkin Island.

Whether the price tag can be met remains to be seen given that non-residents are currently not allowed to enter Australia. But opportunities to own such a home do not come around very often: The Rumbles bought Pumpkin Island 17 years ago for A$1.3 million from the previous owner who had won it in a poker game in 1961.

“We’ll be very sad to leave,” Rumble said. “It’s just stunning.”

“You don't need to be a billionaire to buy an island. If you’re able to buy a very good car you can buy an island.” – Farhad Vladi

By Jamie Smyth in Sydney © 2020 The Financial Times

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