This country is red hot for real-estate investors

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Marco Prosch | Getty Images

The idyllic islands of the Maldives are receiving a lot of attention from wealthy real-estate entrepreneurs, property investment firms told CNBC.

Alan O'Connor, director of luxury real-estate group Debutesq, said he's seen a surge in enquiries for private islands recently, in particular from rich Eastern Europeans. In early December, O'Connor met with a Russian billionaire in London whom he described as possessing "a real passion for the Maldives and keen to develop an exclusive luxury resort to rival the best there is."

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Several high-net worth individuals seek to profit from the country's booming tourism industry, including 42-year old Czech billionaire Jiri Smejc who opened the Velaa Private Island resort earlier this year, where luxury villas cost $30,000 a night.

Europe-based Debutesq told CNBC that over $1 billion was invested in the country in the past four years, an increase from recent years. Several of the firm's clients are entrepreneurs from Russia and East Asia, with varied business interests including finance and oil.

Global real estate firm JLL meanwhile has brokered six transactions in the Maldives over the past three years, amounting to half a billion in investment volume, also larger than previous years, with interest primarily from high-net worth Asian and Middle Eastern individuals.

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The Centara Grand Island Resort & Spa in the Maldives.
Soo Hon Keong | Getty Images
The Centara Grand Island Resort & Spa in the Maldives.

A gateway resort market

"From an investment perspective, the Maldives is a true gateway resort market, which is accessible to Asia, Europe, and the Middle East," said Nihat Ercan, executive vice president of Asia investment sales at JLL.

The Maldives archipelago lies in the Indian Ocean and is home nearly 1,200 islands, out of which only 290 are inhabited. It's often ranked as one of the world's top holiday destinations. Investors looking to open a hotel business have huge scope for profits, with current supply indicating that the Maldives is anything but a saturated market.

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A search on popular travel booking site Agoda reveals only 205 hotel listings across the archipelago, with at least fifteen resorts charging more than $1,000 per night. In contrast, other popular island destinations face oversupply issues: Majorca has around 940 hotels, while Phuket boasts 1,600.

The government has a rule of 'one resort per island,' but Ercan believes there's still plenty of space for the hotel business to grow. The rule benefits resorts since the distance between islands deters guests from travelling, giving resorts the chance to profit heavily from a single tourist, from the cost of daily meals to leisure services, he said.

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Costs of islands

The government remains supportive of foreign ownership, granting investors leases of 50 years and expectations are high for an extension to 91 years.

"The cost involved in obtaining the leasehold can vary, depending on the island's size and proximity to Male International Airport," O'Connor said. An undeveloped island of around 14 acres can cost between $7-8 million if it's under half an hour by sea plane from Male, while something of 30 acres further afield can be picked up for around $12 million, he said.

Typically, investors tend to buy existing operating resorts instead of entering the market by themselves, which the government supports since it doesn't disturb local employment.

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"The government prefers to see local partnership formed and taxes from profits paid locally. The local business profit tax (BPT) is relatively low at 15 percent and the administration has further encouraged investment by abolishing import tax on construction materials for the next 3 years," O'Connor said.

Challenges

Despite its reputation as a tiny slice of paradise, the Maldives has experienced its fair share of conflict, including an alleged government coup from 2011 to 2012. During that time, Debutesq said their data showed no influence of the coup hurting sales.

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The country also recently recovered from a severe water crisis this month after a fire damaged desalination plants in the capital city. Debutesq said this was unlikely to deter investment since water shortages generally occur in populated areas with low infrastructure investment, whereas modern leisure developments build in an element of funding to put this infrastructure in place.