Take 5: One-on-one with entrepreneur Gulu Lalvani

The yacht-loving businessman shares how he fell in love with Phuket – and why he’s invested so much on the island

Gulu Lalvani at Royal Phuket Marina

British India-born Gulu Lalvani, 77, previously made a name for himself as a founder of Binatone Electronics based in the United Kingdom, becoming one of the top five richest Asians in Britain. In the last decade, however, he has settled in one of Thailand’s premier resort destinations, Phuket, where he established the multimillion, multiphased development called Royal Phuket Marina, which covers around 200 rai and had an initial investment of USD50 million.

Property Report recently caught up with him to talk about his reasons why he decided to settle on Phuket, how his love for yachts influences his most ambitious development, and what his outlook is on the island’s real estate market.

Why did you choose to invest in Phuket real estate? You could have chosen any place around the world.

Travelling and yachting are amongst my greatest passions, and I have been fortunate to be able to pursue them both wholeheartedly. Yet, as I travelled the world, I experienced many amazing destinations and resorts, but nothing that really struck me with its perfection – nothing had it all.

Then I discovered Phuket and fell in love. For me, Phuket had all the elements for the perfect yachting destination. I saw an immense opportunity in Phuket – one that no one else had yet pursued. Royal Phuket Marina is the result of my ambition to put Phuket on the map as an international yachting and lifestyle destination.

Prior to Royal Phuket Marina I have visited Phuket many times and have a villa at Amanpuri where family, friends and myself have spent many happy hours. Having fallen in love with Phuket and it becoming a second home to me, I launched Royal Phuket Marina.

Today this project is Phuket’s premier lifestyle destination, combining luxury waterfront living with a state-of-the-art, five-time Gold Anchor-awarded marina – the only marina in Thailand to be presented this award – and many other awards and recognition for our condominium and villa residences.

In today’s market, what are the biggest draws of Phuket real estate aside from tourism?

Phuket’s appeal is strong for visitors, investors and residents. Its natural beauty, beaches and islands, and the great food and people remain true and are the main reasons why many visit Phuket every year. But beyond that, Phuket has become a second-home or even a primary home for residents who find the international schooling, golfing, shopping, cinemas etc. up to the level they would find in their home countries, yet so much more affordable.

Residents can enjoy one of the healthiest air qualities in the world and a year-round warm climate as well as many activities available that in their home countries would be inaccessible or unaffordable for most. Phuket’s tremendous international flight connections to the major commercial hubs in Asia and around the world are also a major draw, far ahead of any other island location, making it practical to have a second-home in paradise easily accessible by more than 40 percent of the world who are located within a six-hour flight.

The cost of living on Phuket is currently higher than Thailand’s other major cities. Is it a concern for foreign or local property buyers at all?

Not really. The cost of living here is considerably cheaper than in Europe, the United States, Australia and many Asian destinations. Thus the island is still an attractive place for many international people to live, invest and purchase second-homes.

Part of the higher prices locally, derive from a greater availability and selection of international items – from food stuffs, to yacht parts – that are imported and rarely found so easily in other parts of Thailand. Rather than higher prices, second-home owners appreciate this access which adds significantly to the quality of an “international lifestyle” and draws more real estate buyers to Phuket.

For Thai people outside of Phuket, the attraction of Phuket as a place to invest in property for both renting out and capital appreciation is strong as the market fundamentals remain strong. In fact, in the last few years Phuket has seen more Thais buying real estate on the island than ever before.

We know that you are passionate about yachting. How does that correlate with your passion for real estate development?

There definitely is a special attraction for yachting and waterfront real estate. It may be a small percentage of the overall real estate market, but if someone is wealthy enough to own a yacht, then they will want to be close to it and where they can use it. That’s my concept for the Luxury Villa Collection and one of our unique appeals – your yacht moored at the end of your luxury villa and from there to be out amongst the best and unrestricted cruising waters in the world.

Waterfront and seaview homes command a premium when compared to inland properties – it’s my personal observation. Whilst low- to medium-priced inland real estate has seen considerable growth in the last two to three years, with many buying to live or targeting local working professionals as tenants, waterfront or seaview villas and condominiums command rental premiums as they predominantly target an international audience, and as a result also command a premium purchase price. This is seen in capital growth in the resale values of luxury villas across the island.

Tell us about the current infrastructure developments on the island.

The expansion of Phuket International Airport expansion and road infrastructure improvements that are currently taking place currently will benefit all of Phuket. They will make the area even more accessible.

In terms of the marina itself, improved road infrastructure will make it more accessible to visitors and residents who wish to come and dine on the Boardwalk, enjoy our health and wellness facilities, or jump on a boat and be in one of the world’s best cruising grounds within minutes of departing the marina.

Is Phuket a family-friendly location?

I believe so. Phuket is my home. I don’t see living here a challenge at all. I do continue to travel and I visit my other homes around the world regularly, but I have made Phuket my home and I spend the majority of my time here. I enjoy cruising on one of my boats two to three times a week as Phuket’s cruising grounds are superb. The anchorages and destinations are relatively untouched when compared to other yachting centres such as the Mediterranean or the Caribbean.

I also enjoy the onshore lifestyle, whether it is fine dining at one of the many wonderful restaurants on the island or local Thai food. Every cuisine is available here and the options are endless.

The island is also very family-friendly. In addition to the natural assets, there are many great onshore facilities for families and children of all ages. At Royal Phuket Marina we have seen significant growth in the number of families both visiting the island and living here, and to cater to this we will be opening the island’s best kids club early 2016, called Kids Mania.

How do you see Phuket residential real estate thriving in the next few years?

As Phuket develops further and the numbers of tourists and residents continues to increase, island-wide infrastructure is key. Central government is currently investing billions in Phuket and can see the potential of the island to become a truly world-class destination.

With such Government attention I believe Phuket will become a Duty Free island within next five years and become the best shopping paradise in Asia with all the top brand names here and available at the best prices.

In the early years of property development the market was driven by European buyers who would fly 13-15 hours to use their holiday homes. With 40 percent of the world’s popular within six hours flying time of Phuket, the market has changed. This is the “Asian Century” and with people of the two largest countries in the world, India and China, on Phuket’s doorstep I expect to see property prices explode. People of both countries are becoming more affluent and as both countries are heavily polluted Phuket is an attractive get away and second-home option for them.