“Live-aways”. It’s not really a word, but it’ll do for our purposes. The terrestrial equivalent of boating live-aboards, this refers to a place where retirees and holidayers are buying or renting villas. A place that, although it may lie far from home, nevertheless feels like home. And Asia-Pacific is the current hotspot for these exclusive tropical homes and villas.

Moneyed people from northern Europe used to build holiday villas in the Mediterranean. That area remains beautiful, but space is at premium, and the shoreline is cluttered with chock-a-block resorts. The second wave of tropical-home builders came from North America and Europe, and this one targeted the Caribbean. Unfortunately, many Caribbean countries are no longer as welcoming to outsiders who want to build tropical homes there as they once were. Now, partly because of shorter travel times, people from the West have discovered the Asia-Pacific region. Apart from Africa, in fact, this is the last remaining frontier for those seeking warm and beautiful escapes.

The booming Asia-Pacific tropical homes market appeals to three mains groups of people. First you have affluent people who live in cold climates and want to build a holiday home where they can stay for a couple months of the year, typically when the climate in their own country is coldest. Many plan to rent out their villa when they themselves aren’t in residence. (A sub-category, perhaps, are business people who have seen the potential for profit, and have started building villas strictly for rentals or resale.) Retirees are the second group — people who have finished with their careers, have probably vacationed in Asia-Pacific previously, and who now want to establish their own homes in the tropics. The third group are those who want build a home-and-office from which they can run an international business in comfort and style. Modern communications technology, as well as fast and inexpensive transport, makes this option available to an ever-growing number of entrepreneurs.

These developments coincide with a movement in the holiday market from hotels to villas. This is especially true for families who realize that staying in a villa can be much cheaper and more convenient. More and more couples are sharing villas as well, again to save money, but also so they can enjoy a different cultural experience. They get the chance to shop in the local market, mix with the locals, buy their own food and cook their own meals. They aren’t nearly as sheltered as they would be in a resort, where all they need do is dial room service.

In Thailand, the seeds of this new wave were sown back in 1984. An Indonesian publishing mogul was wandering Phuket’s beautiful west coast, seeking a site for the perfect winter home. In those days, however, Phuket had little to offer in the way of mod-coms, and it didn’t take Adrian Zecha long to decide that he should leave the Pansea Hotel and head back to the airport. Without his house. He whiled away what he thought were to be the last minutes of his visit, strolling up on a nearby headland. There he discovered an expansive site, vacant save for coconut groves, and a nearby beach so beautiful that his entrepreneurial mind quickly calculated the small fortune people would pay to enjoy a few days of life in such idyllic conditions. Thus was born the Amanpuri resort. The Aman concept went on to spread luxury oases across Asia.

Zecha did eventually build his house on Phuket. Plus 29 more million-dollar villas just like it that were all sold to international jetsetters. Those were big bucks back then, especially for a house on an unknown backwater tropical island such as Phuket was in those days. Local landowners, coconut farmers and simple fishermen soon joined the rush to sell the family farm to their city cousins. It would be years before some of them realized that what they had given up was comparable in beauty and value to the solid gold sands of Hawaii.

Bali, back in the 1970s, was the original tropical-home destination of choice in this region. But Indonesia hasn’t enjoyed the same political stability that Thailand has, and the Land of Smiles has taken over as the region’s most popular tropical-homes destination. And when you say Thailand, you’re really talking about Phuket and Koh Samui, because people want a beach, a beautiful warm sea, and watersports.

People vacation or retire here because of their lifestyle preferences, not just because they can stay in architecturally brilliant homes in remarkable natural surrounds. So infrastructure is important. And this is another area where Phuket and Samui win high marks, offering respected international schools and hospitals as well as good international air connections and telecommunications. Throw into the mix distinguished chefs at international-standard restaurants, top-of-the-line golf courses, international sailing regattas, and the nightlife for which Thailand is renowned, and you’ve got a package that most people find quite attractive.

Although not just anybody can buy into it. “We don’t want just anyone with a few million dollars to spare,” says Anthony Lark of Phuket’s Trisara Villas. “We aren’t just selling bricks and mortar to the first people who come along with cash. We’re selling a whole lifestyle. We must be sure that those to whom we sell the villas really appreciate them, and share our vision.”

Those building, buying or renting tropical homes are continuing to realize a high return on investments. It’s all about lifestyle choices. People with money want a nice place to live. And that’s why Asia-Pacific tropical homes, Koh Samui, Phuket, and the associated infrastructure, present a booming market with unlimited potential.

Other Hot Spots

Even though it’s not considered as culturally exotic as Thailand and Bali, Far North Queensland is another popular destination. One of its advantages: foreigners of any nationality can buy freehold property. This provides more security for prospective villa buyers, negating the disadvantage of longer travel times. And, within Australia itself, you have a microcosm of this whole industry. People with money from the southern part of the country are buying and investing in holiday homes in the north. Again, they’re the tropical homes trinity: those seeking to escape the southern winter; retirees moving lock, stock and barrel to a place they’ll live till they die; and people seeing the movement to tropical homes and coming in as investors.

Sri Lanka is one more hotbed for tropical homes. As soon as a ceasefire in the civil war was declared, Europeans came in and bought up old colonial homes from the 17th and 18th centuries and refurbished them. Foreigners also have the option of buying freehold property in Sri Lanka.

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