MAY 22, 2007
 (MALAYA) A visit to Thailand by Bill Gates has inspired the construction of a man-made island off the resort of Phuket, so the world’s richest man and other billionaires can moor their huge yachts.

Hoping to build an Asian playground for the rich and famous to rival the French Riviera and the Caribbean, cordless telephone tycoon Gulu Lalvani plans to build a doughnut-shaped island of 30 to 40 luxury villas and a hotel around a marina.

"Bill Gates was there last month with his wife on a 54 meter (177 foot) yacht and he loved it so much," Lalvani, founder of phone maker Binatone told Reuters in an interview.

"We sat on the beach together and he said it was one of the best holidays he’d had, and he would come back every year if only he had somewhere for his mega yacht."

Lalvani, 68, who built the Royal Phuket Marina on the island’s east coast "as a retirement hobby", said he had received permission from Phuket’s governor, and construction would start at the end of this year and take four years.

"The governor is a close friend," Lalvani said. "We’d discussed it before, but after Bill Gate’s visit, he sanctioned the project."

Zoran Island, named after Lalvani’s youngest son, will be 3 km (1.9 miles) off Phuket, in Phang Nga Bay, where limestone outcrops provided the backdrop to the James Bond film "The Man With the Golden Gun".

The island and development, reminiscent of huge man-made islands such as "The Palm" and "The World" projects off Dubai, will cost around $200 million, Lalvani said.

Phuket’s western and southern coasts were battered by the Indian Ocean tsunami in December 2004, with more than 200 lives lost on the island, but the resort property market has since rebounded.

"This is on the east coast, it’s sheltered. The tsunami damage was on the west, it didn’t touch us whatsoever," he said.

Most people had moved on from the disaster, he added.

"First quarter arrivals and hotel occupancy were at an all time record. 2005 was a disaster but now every hotelier is over the moon. The tsunami’s a thing of the past, everyone’s forgotten about it."

At the Royal Phuket Marina, which is too shallow at low tide to admit large yachts, two-bedroom condominiums have doubled in price on the secondary market to about $600,000 in the past 18 months.

A five-bedroom villa and yacht berth at the resort, similar to the type that will be built on the new island, fetch around 3 million euros ($4.05 million), about the same as a 30-year lease on a yacht berth in the south of France, Lalvani said.

Paul Allen, who formed Microsoft Corp. with Gates, visits Phuket once every two years, and Chelsea Football Club’s Russian owner, Roman Abramovich, travels to the island every year, Lalvani said. —Reuters

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

All rights reserved