A choppy luxury
Once a hobby, sailing is turning into a seriously lucrative business: Inas Mazhar
cruises through the boat fair
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At Porto Marina, sailing proved to be one of the most attractive hobbies for vacationers photos: Ayman Ibrahim
It all started with jet skis speeding off the Mediterranean coast -- that's as far as it went for the 'cream of the cream' of vacationers. Until the last few years, that is, when bigger and more interesting vessels started making appearances at Marina, the popular North Coast resort. Porto Marina, the most recent resort within the resort, even offers a yacht dock for both Egyptian and foreign vessels. The country's wonderful, extensive coastlines are the site of major investments geared towards water sports -- the Porto Marina dock is not the only one. There are now docks at Ain Sokhna, the Suez Gulf resort 200km northeast of Cairo, and San Stefano at the heart of the Alexandria Corniche. The enclosed resort city of Gouna, north of Hurghada, is another such hotspot for sailing. Marina has been swarming with speed boats and yachts for a while now, but most were for rent. Last week an event took place that will radically alter that picture -- a three-day boat fair, the first line-up of its kind of elegant cruisers and luxury yachts offered for ownership.
Some of the latest models were available, ranging in length from 17 to 60 feet: sports boats included the sport, sundeck, select, weekender and sun-sport models; sports cruisers included the sun dancer, the Amberjack, the Sedan Bridge and a variety of yachts. The fair also exhibited fishing boats, jet skis, maintenance tools and spare parts. Upper-class patrons of the event represented all age groups, including children. Three little girls were dragging their mom to a vessel they seemed to like. "We're here because we've decided to buy our own boat," the mom, Asmaa Hossam, who was accompanied by her husband Ashraf Rashed, explained. "My husband and I love boats and our children grew to love them too. We used to rent one whenever we went to Marina, but now that the children are older we feel we should give them and ourselves one." While the father checked the prices with the attendants, the girls looked ecstatic. "They want to choose their own boat," the mother added, smiling. "Our best times as a family are when we gather on a boat and spend time out at sea -- it's what we like most."
Most visitors seemed familiar with the merchandise, casting expert looks, and asking about specifications. Yasser Mahmoud, a graduate student, was there to choose his graduation gift: "I love sports boats more than cars, though a car is more useful because we use it all the time, whereas a boat is only for weekends and holidays. I said I'd have a boat rather than renew my car." Mahmoud, too, though a regular at the North Coast and Red Sea docks, has always had to rent; a speed boat costs LE600 an hour, so buying is cheaper in the long run. "It will also ensure that we have the boat we want whenever we want it," he says. "Having my own boat gives me the luxury to be free." This was Mahmoud's second visit to the fair: he could not make up his mind immediately, so impressive was the range. "But I'll decide by the end of the day." Others who could never afford a boat came to the fair out of curiosity: three friends had skipped classes at university to ogle the beauties on show; speaking on condition of anonymity, one of them said, "we don't belong here, we don't even own cars. But you can see all the different cars on the street. Here is a different story: vessels you can only see at very expensive beaches or in movies." Laughing, another added, "since we can't go to these resorts because we can't afford it, this is our chance to enjoy looking at the boats and penciling them into the agenda of our dreams -- first, a car. But they are absolutely fabulous things."
It was speed boats they were referring to, and fascination with speed boats has driven some, like Magdi Kirollos -- a dealer with a by now world-famous company -- to start their own business. Boats have been an addiction for seven years, he said: "all my free time is spent at sea, mostly the North Coast. It's where I bond with family and friends, since we all enjoy the same hobby, especially my teenage son." A computer engineer with an MBA from Harvard, Kirollos went into the business three years ago: it prospered because the customs on imported boats dropped from 40 to five per cent, and because there has been an investment in boat- ready resorts. For the same reasons, boating companies have been recruiting dealers and opening offices in Egypt. Three years ago there was only one dealer in the business; now there are 15: "the foreign companies are impressed by the performance of the Egyptian market in this sphere; there is a reason to think the future is promising." To attract customers, Kirollos has liaised with banks to facilitate instalment plans: "at LE125,000, it is like buying a car." Banker Alaa Samaha, who took up the challenge, launched the plan during the fair. "This move has encouraged more people. If you think of the idea, you'll find it appealing," he said. "People take it seriously -- why not join the elite?"
Yet Rafiq Hanna, a dealer and agent with show rooms across the country, found such a boom in sales surprising: "as dealers, we were concerned that the fair wouldn't attract enough customers, but with banks on the case it got easier for more people. Such success has encouraged us and we're thinking of making the fair twice instead of the original plan of once a year." Nor is the business confined to Cairo: waterfront showrooms established by Kirollos in El-Gouna, Porto Marina and Ain Sokhna have accelerated access to customers: "They let us provide post-sale services, which is essential because what if your boat breaks down during vacation and you end up spending the whole time making calls for someone to come and fix it." It is something from which he himself suffered before entering the business. "Only those who know how to work the post-sale market will succeed. It's like buying a car from a dealer whom you know will always be around." Hanna, who used to be a car dealer, agrees: "in each spot, we have engineers who got their training abroad and technicians who are always on call for immediate maintenance or in case of emergencies." He believes that in five years time, the sports boats in Egypt will be as big as the automobile market.
Yet Kirollos sounds an alarm, pointing out that, before youngsters get excited about boats, they should realise that regulations forbid the dealer from selling a boat to anyone who does not hold a boating license. The driving course is organised by the Marine Inspection Authority, who issue the licence: "Anyone can buy a car and then learn how to drive, or even hire a driver, but the boat owner must have a license. Sometimes, marine inspectors undertake surprise checks and it is always better if the owner is on board." Kirollos stressed the fact that driving a boat is more difficult than driving a car, because in the water you are subject to the tide and the wind and the hands should be very sensitive on the steering wheel. Yet there are those, like Sara Iskandar, 18, who have mastered the skill. A student at the American University in Cairo, she has had her own boat and the required licence for two years: "my best time is when I'm behind the wheel in the boat -- it's a real pleasure. I've always loved the sea; it was my father who introduced me to it." Iskandar was upset because she had missed the fair -- and the chance to review the latest model. Her boat is at Ain Sokhna, and she can't wait to go back to it: "people find it strange that I'm a girl and young yet brave enough to go out into the deeps. But I'm not afraid of it at all. I just love it. It's pure fun."