Was my mouth hanging open? I fear it was. And my neck was tilted as far back as my spine would allow. Never again will I snicker at tourists gaping at New York City skyscrapers — not after the way I stood gobsmacked on Railay Beach, a cradle of white sand between spectacular limestone cliffs in Thailand so protected by nature that the only way in is by boat.
I couldn’t drop my jaw at Melissa’s Garden, but only because I had to keep my air supply between my lips. I was snorkeling in Raja Ampat, Indonesia, above fish-filled coral more alive than anything I’ve seen in the Caribbean, South Pacific or Indian Ocean.
These pure-nature experiences aren’t possible where big boats regularly churn the waters, and they’re the reason behind all the chatter about Southeast Asia’s potential as the next great winter charter destination. Thailand is trying to lead the way: Currently, officials there were enacting laws to ease the tax, immigration and other challenges that foreign-flagged yachts have long faced when trying to charter legally. The first charter permits for yachts about 100 feet and larger were expected to be issued for the upcoming season.
Inside Tip: “When heading to the Far East or Indonesia, bring school supplies for the local children. They are much appreciated, and you usually then get a great private tour of the village.” — Diana Brody, Charter Broker, Camper & Nicholsons International
“Regular charterers are looking for new destinations after chartering in the Caribbean and Mediterranean for so many years,” says Lies Sol, charter manager with Northrop & Johnson in Phuket, Thailand. “Destinations like Mergui in Myanmar and Raja Ampat in Indonesia have seen a huge increase in demand. With unspoiled nature becoming scarce around the world, out-of-the-way destinations offer something exciting and adventurous.”
The big question is: If they build a charter infrastructure, will clients come? For sure, a growing number of Americans and Europeans are seeking new experiences, but the thrill-seeking crowd is still a small percentage of the charter market. At the same time, sales brokers are trying to crack the Asian market, where they see potential for charter to entice a lucrative class of Chinese nationals into buying their first superyachts. Leading companies are thus planting flags across Southeast Asia, but sometimes more to establish brand recognition for the future than to capitalize on existing business. Burgess Yachts just added a charter broker who speaks Mandarin and Cantonese, in Singapore, where Fraser Yachts Worldwide and Ocean Independence also have offices. Edmiston has a sales broker in Shanghai, China, while Northrop & Johnson is in Hong Kong, Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. New Zealand-based 37 South moved a staffer from Auckland to Asia in mid-2015.
Burgess Yachts calls its positioning “a slow burn, long-term strategy,” says marketing director Alev Karagulle. One reason is that, until Thailand’s changes come through, most nations in Southeast Asia will have no mechanism for legal charter by foreign-flagged yachts.
A handful of yachts in various fleets have quietly been offering “friend of the owner charters,” but they can result in fines and jail time for yacht owners caught operating commercially — a fear that keeps many from sending their boats to Southeast Asia altogether. Owners are also waiting to see if charter clients truly want to go the distance. While some clients say they want new adventures, many balk at the time required. From New York City to Raja Ampat, the trip can include five back-to-back flights, far more than leaving New York at dawn and being on the yacht off Antigua for lunch.
“Clients are cash rich but time poor and lead very busy lives,” Karagulle says. “Long travel distances are not attractive to them. They may book a long-distance charter every once in awhile, but few clients do so regularly.”
Inside Tip: “At the beginning of the charter, don’t think about what your crew gratuity will be. At the end of the charter, you may decide they’ve blown you away and you want to give more.” — Angela Connery, Charter Broker, Angela Connery Yacht Charters
Sol, looking on from Thailand and broader Southeast Asia, is far more bullish: “I hope to see a sharp increase in visiting charter yachts and bookings,” she says, based on the new Thailand permits.
Only one thing’s for sure: Clients will be the force driving the speed of development on Southeast Asia’s waters. Call a broker today if you want to enjoy the territory as I did, while it’s still pristine.
The Wonders of Thailand
Most yachts available for charter in Thailand base on the east side of Phuket, where marina owners have been making investments in recent years to lure more superyachts. From the international airport or most Phuket hotels, you can be aboard the yacht within about a half-hour. Some stops that are possible on a charter itinerary include Phang Nga Bay, which is partly protected as a national park; Ko Lanta, with great beaches and diving; and the Racha Islands, which are renowned for their top-notch snorkeling.