ECONOMY

Superyacht crowd set course for Greece to escape pandemic

Like many superyacht enthusiasts, Johan Wedell-Wedellsborg spends the summers cruising around the Mediterranean. This year he and his family chose Greece, where they enjoyed an idyllic few weeks island-hopping on the 56m O’Natalina.

“The fact you can wake up alone in a bay, go to a little town and eat at a small seaside taverna is unique. On the French Riviera it’s not the same, you just sail along the coast, there are more yachts, and it is not as secluded as Greece,” said Wedell-Wedellsborg, owner of the Weco Shipping company who has links to Denmark’s royal family.

His is one of a growing number of wealthy families that opted to charter a superyacht in Greek waters this summer. This provided a much-needed boost to the Aegean nation’s battered holiday industry as it endured a summer blighted not only by the coronavirus pandemic but also natural disaster.

“Greece has seen a surge in yachting activity,” said Stewart Campbell, editor-in-chief of Boat International, the superyacht magazine, which tracked 834 superyachts in Greek waters in July, just behind France with 945 and Italy’s 1,353. “That’s way ahead of previous years,” he added.

A chartered vessel is like a floating hotel where the ability to control the environment and screen guests and staff for the virus provides added security © Anthony Venitis

One reason for the rise was that Greece opened up to tourists earlier than others in the Mediterranean. Foreign visitors, including Americans who could not enter Europe owing to pandemic restrictions, were welcomed in Greece from mid-May, as long as they were fully vaccinated or showed a negative coronavirus test.

Superyacht owners responded by rushing their vessels to Greece, where they knew they would be able to access them and attract charter interest.

Much of the world’s superyacht fleet spends half the year in the Caribbean before moving to the Mediterranean for the European summer. The vast majority are motorised vessels staffed by a professional crew, as opposed to sailing yachts.

“We’ve had so many requests for Greece this year . . . Our main problem is there’s not enough supply [to meet] the demand,” said Barbara Dawson, a senior charter broker at Camper & Nicholsons, a superyacht specialist.

Another reason for Greece’s popularity is that, with an extensive coastline and more than 220 inhabited islands, wealthy superyacht owners judged it safer than other destinations. A chartered vessel is essentially a floating luxury hotel where the ability to control the environment and screen guests and staff for the virus provides an added level of security.

Taverna on Mykonos
Superyachts boost the local economy as people often moor and visit bars and restaurants such as this taverna on Mykonos © Getty Images

Greece suffered in the pandemic, but did not have the same peaks as Italy, France or Spain — although new cases have risen sharply over the past two months. “Greece was considered a safe country that did well during Covid-19, especially for our US clients,” Dawson said.

Golden Yachts, which builds and charters superyachts, has been another beneficiary. “Last year the market was an absolute nightmare — this year it’s completely the opposite. We don’t have a single day free for any of our 42 yachts until the end of August,” said John Dragnis, chief executive.

He continued: “We have high-profile clients, entrepreneurs, athletes and celebrities who are chartering our yachts feeling that it’s the safest choice for their vacation during the pandemic.”

Greece has been ravaged by severe wildfires this summer, particularly on the island of Evia and around the capital Athens. Rising infections have also led to restrictions and local lockdowns in some popular destinations. 

Yet this has not deterred foreign tourists, with more than 6m arriving already this year. “The last time we saw such a figure was in pre-pandemic 2019,” tourism minister Harry Theoharis said in a television interview this week.

A superyacht is technically more than 24m in length, and the cost of hiring one can vary from tens of thousands to several million euros a week, depending on size and style. The most expensive such as the 136m Flying Fox can cost €3m a week.

It is not just the charter market that has been given a virus-related boost. Superyacht brokerage sales also recorded a record-breaking rise, according to Boat Pro, Boat International’s market intelligence system.

When the first wave of the pandemic struck in early 2020, activity basically ceased — vessels stopped selling and the production of boats at shipyards ground to a halt.

But buyers returned in big numbers last summer, with the result that the second half of 2020 recorded more sales than any other six-month period. This trend accelerated in 2021, which has blown all previous years out of the water. In the first half, 344 superyachts changed hands on the brokerage market, far ahead of previous years.

“People previously hesitant about stepping into the sector realised that yachting provides the perfect means of isolation for them and their families,” Campbell said.

While superyachts carry huge private stores of food and other necessities, their presence can offer a significant boost to local economies. Superyacht visitors spend up to five times more than the average hotel guest in Greece, according to a pre-pandemic study by the Greek Marinas Association.

“Unlike cruise vessels, where people tend to eat and spend on board, part of the joy of yachting is discovering new bars and restaurants. There are also mooring fees, which directly benefit local economies, and the sale of goods and services,” Campbell said.

Olga Milioni, a yacht agent based in Mykonos, a favourite Greek island for the superyacht crowd, also stressed the financial benefits they bring.

“Lobsters, top-quality fish, flowers, as well as limousine services and VIP reservations on the islands, where they can spend €10,000 just on drinks,” she said.

“Others asked for a really expensive bag . . . or custom-labelled champagne bottles and luggage”, while someone else “heard a DJ playing at a club and asked him to do a private show on their yacht”.

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