Say hello to Fiji's idyllic charms
Bula. The Fijian word for 'hello' is surely one of the warmest welcomes in the world, especially when delivered on the archipelago's golden shores by a perennially grinning, floral lei-bearing local.
Fijians were once voted the 'world's friendliest people' in a Conde Nast readers' poll. With thousands of miles of pristine, white sand beaches, fabulous coral gardens and azure lagoons to call home, they have reason to smile - and seem glad to share it with foreigners, be they holidaymakers, or property investors.
'Eighty per cent of the land is native title held by the traditional villagers, which keeps the locals happy. They're not worried about foreign investors coming in and taking their land,' says Peter Hilmer, who has been helping foreigners to buy land and build homes on Fijian islands for 20 years.
Lots of places in the Asia-Pacific these days offer idyllic island destinations to foreigners seeking a second home abroad - Bali, Thailand, the Philippines and Cambodia among them. However, Hilmer, chief financial officer of Maui Bay Info, points out that Fiji is the only one where they can buy freehold title. Other places only offer leaseholds - which Fiji also does, in some of its resorts - which seem to be marketed quite successfully to foreign buyers.
So, what's the difference?
'Fiji is the only place in the South Pacific, apart from New Zealand, where foreign citizens can own freehold land. Only 8 per cent of the land is freehold, so this makes it a rare commodity and a good investment,' Hilmer says.
Fiji is an underdeveloped paradise offering a rare Polynesian lifestyle, and it is cheap. Hilmer, who only sells new properties, can sell a block of land for under US$50,000, and one can build a 'lovely home' for US$100,000. Rising labour costs have not yet caught up with Fiji, and there is 'an abundance of local timber', he notes.
A key attraction for buyers from China is the cheap price of its citizenship. This can be obtained for just a US$50,000 investment - a fraction of the amount required by countries such as Australia, the United States and Canada. 'Anyone can come to Fiji,' says Hilmer, who was born in Australia, but now holds Fijian citizenship himself.
Such is the level of interest from Asia that Maui Bay Info has set up a Chinese website, and is considering appointing an agent on the mainland.
An unspoiled paradise it might well be, but what about political instability? A series of military coups - the latest in 2006 - drew international condemnation, leading to a Commonwealth suspension of Fiji's membership. Elections targeted for 2014 could see a return to democracy and, ultimately, reinstatement to the Commonwealth. In the meantime, however, the unfavourable press largely put the brakes on overseas property sales.
And then came the global financial crisis, and the market was dealt a double blow.
Anecdotally, agents say sales volume has dropped by 40 to 50 per cent, while prices fell 30 per cent. There is 'no sign of recovery yet', Hilmer says, which in real estate terms means it's a buyer's market.
Philip Toogood, managing director and partner of Bayleys Real Estate (Fiji), agrees that there are still great opportunities for buyers. However, he has a different view of the market.
'We have recently seen a dramatic lift in sales enquiry and activity across the market, and the signs are excellent,' he says. 'Buyers from New Zealand and Australia have re-entered and are purchasing managed apartments and residential houses and land. Buyers from China, the Middle East and the US are looking to make significant investments in the resort and residential development arena. Local investors and developers are also taking positions.'
What is really interesting, Toogood says, is the level of activity at the high-end of the market for premium residential homes - a sector of the market that has seen little action over the past three or four years. 'Sellers who are realistic in their expectations are working with us to close sales. We are looking forward to an extremely busy 12 months ahead.'
Bayleys has some 'exceptional properties' on its books, including classic, crescent-shaped white sand palm fringed-beach properties for home or resort development; premium Denarau Island and Naisoso Island homes and home-building sites; commercial properties and resorts.
'One property in particular, Myola, is a truly world-class freehold trophy residential property just 45 minutes from Nadi International Airport - complete with its own beach, lime plantation, stunning reef and Pacific Ocean views,' Toogood says.
Bayleys also has a waterfront home set on over 1,100 square metres of freehold land. 28 The Cove, a four-bedroom, four-bathroom house, is located on Denarau Island.
Fully furnished, and with its own pontoon, the asking price is FJD$2.9 million (HK$12.8 million).
Two boutique resort properties are also offered to investors.
Mango Bay Resort, on Fiji's Coral Coast, is one of Fiji's well-known 'flashpackers'.
The buildings on a beautiful 13-acre site are strategically placed to allow for further development of another 40 acres. The resort has all the usual amenities, including a nightclub.
Located within a two-hour drive from Nadi International Airport, it is listed for FJD$3.95 million.
The other property is located at Kosova Bay, in Nananu-i-Ra, just off the northern coast of Viti Levu, Fiji.