In September of 2015, when the body of 3-year-old Syrian refugee Aylan Kurdi washed up on a beach in Turkey, a billion people watched in agony and shame. Naguib Sawiris was one among them. He saw the incident as a wake-up call. He could no longer be indifferent to the Syrian humanitarian crisis, and being the second richest man in Egypt, there was a lot he could do.
He announced that he will buy a set of islands in Greece to house the refugees. As a builder, he was confident that he could create a “country” of 100,000 to 200,000 happy people by offering them safety and also the opportunity to build, from scratch, this “country” that would become their home. In the long-term he envisioned these islands becoming tourist attractions.
Critics immediately pointed out that, in this model, the refugees are not asked to integrate with the rest of society. More importantly, 21 months after the announcement, it seems unlikely that the Greek authorities will approve the project.
Yet, Sawiris’ innovative scheme poses an interesting question to billionaires around the world:
Can a private island be a lot more than an epitome of vanity?
For the better part of a century, billionaires have responded with a resounding “Yes!” to this question. Let’s glimpse the tip of this iceberg by acknowledging a couple of noteworthy and unusual models of island development.
The Richard Branson model
Sir Richard Branson owns two islands – the well-known Necker Island in the British Virgin Islands and the Makepeace Island on Queensland’s Noosa River. As one might expect, Branson’s islander lifestyle balances his larger-than-life persona with a strong sense of purpose.
It is well-known that this maverick billionaire throws open Necker Island to family and friends – and also celebrities like Princess Diana who, in 1990, managed to escape the paparazzi for a week by staying there. Branson ensures that his visitors have a great time. But he has also obtained maximum leverage as an island owner:
- The idea of Virgin Airways came to Branson because he had to charter a flight back home in 1978, following his first visit to the Virgin Islands. He sold tickets to fellow travellers and subsequently entered the aviation industry
- Necker Island now hosts an ultra-luxurious hotel that provides a steady revenue stream
- He employs hundreds of local people and also funds local entrepreneurs
- Due to his influence, wildlife like sharks and turtles are being protected in the area
- Necker Island itself is home to relocated lemurs, currently the most endangered mammal group, and also other species like flamingos, tortoises, ibis and Anegada iguanas which no longer exist in any other island in the vicinity
The Laurance Rockefeller model
Laurance Rockefeller started buying chunks of the island of St John in the early 1940s. By 1949, he owned most of the 5000 acre of St John and it became his chosen site for business and philanthropy. In 1956, he opened an eco-friendly resort hotel on the western edge of the island and, more importantly, on the very same day, donated the rest of his land to his nation so that it could become a designated National Park. Thus, he continued the legacy of his grandfather, John D Rockefeller Jr, who is perhaps the largest benefactor of National Parks in the history of humankind.
While conserving biodiversity is important per se, it assumes particular significance in island ecosystems which might be home to rare indigenous species of flora and fauna. Surfing through the net, one finds an increasing number of stories of billionaire philanthropists who love the role of island conservationists.
Islands offer their owners the opportunity to experience an Adam & Eve moment. To reside in a world that is entirely theirs, which means that they can redesign it inside out or preserve the pristine natural habitat as-is.
Astonishingly, it doesn’t cost much to own an island. A small one can be bought for $20,000 and medium-sized ones cost about the same as a high-end apartment in Mumbai or Manhattan. Bestselling author Alexander McCall Smith bought a whole chain of islands off the Scottish coast for about $460,000.
With islands offering a wide and distinct array of purposes, it’s not surprising that many more billionaires have begun shopping for them. They might be able to buy a little history in the process if they scout the right geographies. Ecuador, for instance, where some of the Galapagos Islands – where Charles Darwin found irrefutable evidence of evolution – seem to be up for grabs.
For those who have the means and an adventurous spirit, owning an island promises to be the ultimate lifelong adventure.