The Big New Bling in China? Yachts

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Imaginechina via AP Images

A Chinese visitor looks at a model yacht at the China International Boat Show in Shanghai on April 12, 2009

Qinghuangdao, a sleepy seaside community a few hundred kilometers northeast of Beijing, has the feel of a town that has seen more glamorous days. Back in the 1970s and '80s, it was the playground of China's communist leaders, who would congregate here to while away the blistering summer months on the beach. As wealthy Chinese have headed overseas on their holidays, Qinghuangdao's sheen has worn off, but the town may be set for a place in the sun once more as China's nouveau riche take to the seas in search of new thrills.

At the Beijing Sailing Center, opened in Qinhuangdao three years ago, Guo Xi, 42, moors his new eight-meter sailboat, a hybrid model that cost him nearly $45,000 (RMB 300,000). A director with a state-owned enterprise, Guo gets out on his boat as often as he can; when he bought it last year, he came out to Qinhuangdao every other weekend. "It's more fun to sail than to drive a motor boat — you have more control," says Guo of his new pleasure craft. I'm not that confident in my sailing skills yet, though, so I chose a boat that has a motor too."

Across China, many are betting big on yachting taking off — from local governments to sailboat salespeople. As incomes rise, pastimes once considered the preserve of the Western world are increasingly within reach of more and more Chinese. From cars to yachts to holiday homes, China's newly affluent upper class is driving a new wave of investment in luxury lifestyles.

In the coastal city of Tianjin, municipal authorities are investing heavily in the rising popularity of yachting. "There are four or five yacht-related projects under construction right now in Tianjin," says Tong Jingzheng, the vice president of Tianjin Tourism Bureau. "Our aim is to build high-class boating facilities right here in Tianjin." The city estimates it will have mooring spaces for more than 10,000 boats within five years.

In October, Tong's department organized a five-day yacht expo in Tianjin, cramming the city's cavernous conference center with dozens of luxury craft. By the end of the week, 95% of the boats were sold, at a total cost of more than $45 million (300 million RMB). "Right now, cars are the really hot ticket item for Chinese consumer, but we think that yachts are going to be next," says Zhang Zhenli, chairman of Tianjin Sentito Co., a yacht dealership and one of the exhibitors at the Tianjin Expo. "In the U.S, every 26 people have one yacht. In China, that number is 5 million. So we think there is a big space for development there," he says.

Rick Pointon, director of the Beijing Sailing Center, says business at the facility is booming as life on the ocean waves becomes increasingly attractive to wealthy professionals in the capital. "When I first arrived in China at the end of 2006, there was no place for sailing near Beijing," says Pointon. "We now have more than 30 members, and membership is growing by 30% to 40% annually."

It's not all clear sailing for China's yachting enthusiasts, however. Many of the yachting facilities around the country are hardly Monte Carlo-standard, and local officials still interfere. "It is annoying that the basic facilities in China are still pretty poor," says Guo in Qinghuangdao. "When we go sailing, sometimes people from the local government will stop us because different places may have different regulations. But once you build a good relationship with them, or invite them to dinner, they usually let you go on about your business."

China's wealthy classes are also wary of being seen to be spending on luxury in a country where government crackdowns on "expensive" activities such as golf or racehorses are frequent. Golf courses, for example, have frequently fallen victim to political crackdowns on pursuits considered "elitist"; the construction of new golf courses is technically banned. In Sichuan province a number of golf courses were recently taken over by the government, plowed up and turned into infrastructure projects. Likewise, China's big spenders, once famed for their very conspicuous consumer habits, are increasingly trying to hide their wealth. Internet exposes of the affluent lifestyles of wealthy officials, for example, have spooked many into toning down their excesses. "Customers at the Expo don't want to let people know that they have a yacht," says Tianjin Tourism's Tong. "They don't want to let other people know they are wealthy."

For all that, however, the romance of sailing remains an alluring aspiration for many. Inside the Tianjin Yacht Expo, local taxi driver Li Baojun browsed the boats on display, even though all were well outside his price range. "When I went to the Forbidden City in the 1980s, I saw international travelers with video cameras there and I was really jealous of them. My biggest wish then was to have a video camera and now I have one," Li recalls. "Today I came to see the yacht exhibition and I really hope someday I can have my own boat. It's a dream now, but who knows? Maybe someday it will become true."