Sunday, November 18, 2012

Italian billionaires splash the cash to change face of Malindi

PHOTO | ROBERT NYAGAH Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and his friend Italian billionaire Flavio Briatore wave to other passengers at the Malindi Airport before their departure to Italy on a private jet after a one-week holiday on November 5, 2012.

PHOTO | ROBERT NYAGAH Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and his friend Italian billionaire Flavio Briatore wave to other passengers at the Malindi Airport before their departure to Italy on a private jet after a one-week holiday on November 5, 2012.  NATION MEDIA GROUP

By ROBERT NYAGAH

Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is thought to be one of the prospective wealthy owners of holiday homes at an exclusive club set to be built in the Kenyan coastal town of Malindi.

Formula One billionaire Flavio Briatore, while announcing his plan to build the club at a cost of Sh500 million last week, said that 24 VIPs had confirmed interest in owning holiday homes. (Read: Club for the world’s richest opens soon)

They consist mostly of wealthy friends of Mr Briatore from Italy and other parts of the world.

Speculation about the Berlusconi connection is fuelled by the fact that the socialite Briatore recently hosted the former Italian prime minister at his Lion in the Sun Resort and Spa in Malindi. (Read: Former Italian PM in Malindi for holiday)

The two billionaire friends spent a week at Lion in the Sun which, for years, used to be Mr Briatore’s holiday home.

Soon after the holiday, Mr Briatore announced his plans for a billionaires club with 24 exclusive apartments whose ownership will be by invitation only.

Artistic impressions of what the club will look like and the disclosures by Mr Briatore that customers seeking to acquire units at the club had to be vetted to ensure that they were people of status suggests it will be one of the most expensive and luxurious resorts in Africa.

“We are not just accepting any client, we are going for the high level upmarket investors. Actually I mainly prefer people I know, friends… you know you cannot get into a private jet with somebody who you do not know or is not your friend,” Mr Briatore said.

Increased demand for high class accommodation for the wealthy prompted the Italian business magnate to change his holiday home into a hotel. Lion in the Sun was voted one of the best clubs in the world for providing guests a healthy holiday under nutrition experts.

One of the attractions at Lion in the Sun is the acclaimed Thala Spa Henri Chenot, which offers a range of body treatments using the principles of ancient Chinese medicine to restore the body’s natural equilibrium. It is said to be one of only six such exclusive centres around the world.

The planned investment is expected to push Malindi’s profile as a tourist resort town up by leaps and bounds.
Mr Briatore said Malindi is a great destination and it deserves high class accommodation for high value tourists.

“Malindi has a good weather, some of the best beaches and, apart from being secure, its people are very friendly to tourists... For that reason there is need to improve the standards and attract upmarket tourists here,” he said.
Another advantage Mr Briatore is exploiting is Malindi’s easy accessibility from Europe and the short distance between the holiday resorts and the Malindi airport.

“Here, one feels completely at home and relaxed, it is the international media in Italy and elsewhere which goes wild on how unsafe it is in Kenya but, after coming to Malindi for more than 20 years, I am convinced this is the place to be with my friends.”

He called on the Italian government to lift the travel advisory to Italians against visiting Kenya.

He said the visit by Mr Berlusconi had been covered by all the major newspapers and magazines in Italy and it was testimony that Kenya and Malindi are safe.

“We have been here for a week and walked on the beach and enjoyed our stay thoroughly. There was no problem at all with security and my guest is happy,” Mr Briatore said.

He said the presence of wealthy people at the Malindi marine park would not affect tourists and Kenyans intending to use the beach since “all over the world there were no private beaches and shorelines are accessible to anybody”.

Within months of building the Lion in the Sun, Mr Briatore published a highly publicised design of a resort – The Riviera Club – which he intended to build at the Casuarina point near the Lion in the Sun.

But the project was shelved after the Italian manager fell out with the Kenya government and had to leave the country. Mr Briatore, however, continued to visit Malindi and spend his holidays here, sometimes bringing VIPs with him.

It is in those many visits between 1990 and 2009 that Mr Briatore spiced up by his camaraderie with British supermodel Naomi Campbell.

The visits by Ms Campbell also created a buzz in the world of fashion and showbiz then, but when he recently hosted one of the wealthiest and most important Italian politicians – Mr Berlusconi – Mr Briatore was taking his dreams to new heights.

Italian investors have transformed Malindi into one of the most popular and well known tourist destinations in Africa for Italians holiday makers and others. The Italians dominate nearly the entire coastline of Malindi with hotels and private villas. They provide employment to thousands of Kenyans and their presence and that of their guests is always boosted the local economy.

Such is the Italian presence in Malindi that many indigenous people have learnt to speak Italian to better serve the tourists. It is not uncommon to see villas and other properties in Malindi advertised for sale in Italian.

Many middle-income Italians have chosen Malindi as their second home and their continued stay in the town contributes greatly to the attraction of other Italian holiday makers to the town where more than 90 per cent of tourist-oriented establishments are owned or controlled by Italians.

Concerns have been raised that when the wealthy and mighty start patronising the beach next to the billionaires club, ordinary Kenyans and tourists will be restrained from the beach.

But Mr Briatore sees a brighter side to this project. He says Malindi is known for its beauty and suitability as an exclusive resort and has to attract high level investors and tourists.

“Cheap tourism is not good,” the businessman said, “it compromises standards.”

Mr Briatore added that he was confident that Kenya’s tourism would get even better over the next five years.

The billionaires club, he said, would employ at least 300 Kenyans and provide a great skills transfer opportunity since the Kenyan workers would be trained in some of the best holiday resorts in Italy for five months.

He however admitted that the economic crisis in Europe had affected investments in Africa slightly but asserted that this would not deter him.

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