Chinese luxury buyers adore Ferragamo fashion designs. Now Nautor’s Swan, the Finnish yacht yard acquired in 1998 by Leonardo Ferragamo (Salvatore’s son), thinks its high-performance racers and cruisers can become lasting status symbols. “For those who are brand-conscious, our wish is that they understand Nautor’s Swan as being one of the most important brands,” said Ettore Mattiello, head of Nautor’s Swan.
Mattiello and dozens of other luxury yacht companies the world over are looking to profit from China’s status consciousness. At the Hainan Rendez-Vous boat show this April, British company Sunseeker sold four units worth a combined $15.9 million. At the same show, Azimut Yachts of Italy sold its flagship 120SL, the biggest motor yacht ever delivered in China. Sebastino Fanizza, manager of Azimut Yachts’s Asia-Pacific region, reports selling 26 vessels to mainland China this year.
“Yachts are in fashion in China at the moment,” said Lan Lu-Chen, a young businessman attending September’s Cannes boat show. “Although the market is very small, there are many rich people. They want a boat to play with, to entertain their friends on — and maybe to plan business.”
According to China Research and Intelligence, the Chinese yachting market brought in $440 million in 2009, compared with a global yacht market of around $3.4 billion. “Maybe it is still a small market compared to the global market, but it has the greatest potential,” Fanizza said. “China is the place where you have to be now, working for the future.”
Yacht companies are certainly working for Chinese business despite several roadblocks to smooth sailing. Import duties of 43 percent discourage the purchase of European luxury yachts, and Chinese coastal waters are governed by obscure and strict rules.
Even though a variety of companies have been successful in enticing Chinese buyers on the appeal of added status, many doubt that they will ever be sailing enthusiasts.
“I don’t believe too much in China at the moment,” said Luca Boldrini, a brand manager at CRN, a shipyard owned by the Ferretti Group, of Italy. “My experience is that mega yachts are normally bought by accomplished yachtsmen — men who know what they want. The Chinese don’t like the sun or sea.”
Alberto Perrone de Zara, marketing director of Riva, another Feretti yard, agrees.
“The people are there, the willingness is there, but the infrastructure is virtually absent,” Mr. da Zara said. “There are no marinas, no people to fix a boat.”
Feretti yards instead are focusing their sales efforts on tried-and-true markets like the United States and Saudi Arabia. While Feretti is taking risks, they are targeted mostly on Brazil, where the number of millionaires is forecast to more than triple by 2020.
Tork Buckley of Big Blue Consulting said the first thing China’s new rich think about buying “is a name-brand watch, a Ferrari, an apartment. They’re not thinking of yachts, yet.”