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Can’t afford to buy a private island? Rent one!

Necker Island in the Caribbean is owned by business magnate Richard Branson
Chris Caldicott | Getty Images
Necker Island in the Caribbean is owned by business magnate Richard Branson

Owning a piece of paradise has long been seen as the ultimate status symbol of the rich and famous – but perhaps not for much longer, as a growing number of wealthy individuals opt to rent private islands instead of splashing out.

This rise of private island tourism is a relatively new development, according to Farhad Vladi, a private island broker with decades of experience in the industry.

"More and more people are turning to islands as a holiday destination, instead of simply something to own," Vladi, who owns Vladi Private Islands, told CNBC. "It seems that the younger generation in particular is more interested in experiencing than acquiring,"

The statistics, he said, speak for themselves. In 40 years of business, Vladi Private Islands has been involved in the sale of 2,400 islands. By contrast, in just the last decade, the company has booked around 26,000 island rentals.

Chris Krolow, the CEO of Private Islands Inc which owns real estate website Private Islands Online, agreed. "We're definitely seeing a growing interest in rentals. These are people who want to holiday somewhere a bit different – sometimes for a couple of weeks; sometimes for a couple of months at a time," he told CNBC.

(Read more: Luxury round-the-world tours on private jets take off)

The most popular rentals are whole islands that can be hired for the exclusive use of a client, he added. In response to this growing demand, island owners ranging from families to celebrities – like business magnate Richard Branson and magician David Copperfield – have put their whole island resorts up for rent.

Both Vladi Private Islands and Private Islands Online have around 200 islands available to rent around the world. Interested jetsetters can choose from landmasses including the Caribbean island of Bonefish Cay, which has a weekly rental value of 50,000 euros ($66,350) for up to 14 people, or Amalfi Island, off the coast of Italy, which costs 130,000 euros ($172,600) per week for up to 12 guests.

At the top end of the market, though, there's Calivigny in the Caribbean. This island's luxury retreat sleeps up to 50 people, but comes at a cost… of a whopping $140,000 per night.

Full-service or rustic?

Chris Krolow, the CEO of Private Islands Inc which owns real estate website Private Islands Online, said the sheer range of islands available for rent – all with different facilities and offerings - meant there was something for everyone – if funds allow.

(Slideshow: Billionaire Private Islands)

"Some private islands come 'full-service', complete with a chef, boat captain, caretaker and other staff," he said. "While others are completely rustic."

But while these rental values might not seem cheap, they are colossally lower than the cost of buying – and upkeeping - your own private island.

Private Islands Online, for instance, has over 40 islands for sale that cost more than $10 million – and that's before factoring in the cost of maintaining an island's properties, infrastructure and staff.

"Owning an island comes with a lot of responsibilities and a lot of hard-work – the reality of island life is often quite far removed from the glamorous, utopian ideal many people imagine," Emma Sharples, the editor of Private Island News magazine, told CNBC.

'See and be seen'

As such, there has been a "dramatic shift" from private island ownership to private island vacations, she said, particularly from the more youthful client base.

"The younger generation seems to have turned its back on such perceived burdens, preferring to rent islands and concentrate on the business of enjoying and experiencing," Sharples added. "I'm sure there's an element of 'see and be seen' at play too – this generation seems to want to see more of the world than ever before, and what better way to do it than on the luxury confines of a private island?"

Even some celebrities – once the epitome of private island buyers - are shunning ownership, according to Brad Sullivan, financial adviser to the rich and famous.

"They are so expensive to upkeep; I see the cash flow that goes into these - the travel, the constant modifications," he told CNBC. "The bills just keep coming in."

(Read more: The Market for Private Islands Is Sinking)

Sullivan said there was no getting away from the fact that buying a private island "is just not a good investment."

"I would never advise a client to purchase an island if they wanted to see returns unless it was over a very long period of time – and we're talking generations here," he warned. "They're basically big boys' toys."

Privacy is key

This summer, a string of A-list jet setters has holidayed on private islands - including Mustique in the Caribbean and North Island in the Seychelles – putting the media spotlight on island tourism.

Indeed, the fact that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have opted to stay on the both islands (the latter for their honeymoon) speaks volumes about their opulence – and privacy.

"Security and anonymity have a large part to play in celebrities' moves away from buying and into renting," Private Island News' Sharples said, adding that high-end destinations boast about their discreet services.

By CNBC's Katrina Bishop. Follow her on Twitter @KatrinaBishop