Rich Chinese show off their wealth on the water

They already drive flashy cars, wear expensive watches and eat at top-end restaurants. Now rich Chinese businessmen have found a new way to flaunt their wealth - luxury boats.

"They want to go out on the ocean and have fun - and take VIP clients to fish and negotiate deals," said Zheng Weihang, secretary general of the China Cruise and Yacht Industry Association.

With the second-largest number of dollar billionaires in the world after the United States, according to Forbes magazine, China is drawing eager foreign marina developers and boatmakers to its shores to tap the fast-growing market.

China currently has around 1,000 luxury powerboats and yachts moored around the country, and the number is expected to balloon to more than 10,000 over the next five years, Zheng told AFP.

On a stretch of reclaimed land near the northern port city of Tianjin, Hong Kong-based developer Rainbow Land Holdings is building what it claims will be China's largest yacht club and marina with 750 berths.

The futuristic design includes a 655-room hotel and underscores the expected growth in the nascent market.

"Sometimes it seems that if you build it, they will come," said David Brightling, general manager of the development.

"I think we will be a weekend destination for many people in Beijing - it's a matter of introducing them to the lifestyle."

Powerboats are the most popular vessels among wealthy Chinese, mainly because they are easier to handle than sailboats, and more than 80 percent are imported from Europe and the United States.

Luxury Italian boatmaker Azimut entered the Chinese market five years ago. In that time, it has sold 30 craft ranging in size from 40-120 feet and costing as much as 100 million yuan (15 million dollars), said Shanghai-based sales representative Tim Bai.

"China has a huge population and has got a lot of billionaires - there's a huge market to be explored," Bai told AFP.

Bai's optimism is shared by Janet Chen, editor-in-chief of China Boating magazine, who believes the industry has "huge potential".

Chen expects the number of marinas and berths in China to nearly double over the next five years to 60 and 5,000 respectively, making for a "bright future". "China's nouveau riche like new stuff and new lifestyles and they like to compete on the size of the boat," Chen told AFP.

While Chinese companies are starting to make luxury boats, the preference among cashed-up consumers is still for foreign-made brands that carry greater social kudos.

"When you want a high-level and high-quality product for the moment you still go for the foreign-made luxury brand," said Delphine Lignieres, director of China Rendez-Vous, which organises an annual luxury lifestyle exhibition on southern Hainan Island.

In September, Lignieres took a group of 25 Chinese shipbuilders, marina developers and prospective boatowners to the Cannes Boat Show in southern France to help them discover the "lifestyle of boating".

"Bringing them here will give them more desire to buy a boat in China afterwards," Lignieres explained to AFP.

"They are mainly businessmen in real estate or finance who are looking for another lifestyle."

After 30 years of rapid economic growth in China, a growing number of people can afford high-end products and the country is forecast to become the world's top buyer of luxury goods by 2015, according to PriceWaterhouseCoopers.

Sales of luxury goods on the mainland hit an estimated 8.6 billion dollars in 2008, according to the consulting firm Bain and Company. When purchases by Chinese people abroad are factored in, the market was worth 20 billion dollars.

But the growing popularity of boats is more than just a sign of the growing wealth in China - it represents a cultural shift in the way people like to have fun, said Ryan Swift, editor-in-chief of Asia-Pacific Boating magazine.

"What these wealthy guys liked to do for fun (in the past) was go to very, very expensive karaoke bars or buy shiny objects. Their concept of having fun was very urban," Swift told AFP.

"But now they see rural and coastal territories as things to embrace, not avoid."

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