The warm waters of the Indian Ocean offer picture-perfect holiday glamour. Couples crave their Robinson Crusoe escapism and families love the five-star options, while sublime golf courses, diving and watersports offer cross-generational sporting appeal.
What the islands didn’t offer until recently was the chance to own property amid the tropical beauty. Now the governments of Mauritius, the Seychelles and the Maldives, a triumvirate of beach‑beautiful Indian Ocean nations, all have legislation aimed at encouraging non-residents to consider a permanent island base. The success of these schemes is helping the region develop a stellar reputation for the ultimate holiday home, stealing some of the exotic homeownership limelight from the Caribbean Sea.
“There are many reasons why the Indian Ocean has gained ground from the Caribbean in the past decade,” notes Sonu Shivdasani, founder of Soneva Resorts. “The journey time from the UK is slightly longer than to the Caribbean, but the flight options, whether direct or via the Middle East, are more varied and frequent. Then there are the fundamentals of the location, with the Indian Ocean’s excellent marine environment and extraordinary coral. Finally, there is the quality of the product, the high level of service – our guests tell us they don’t find that easily in the Caribbean – and the diversity of culture due to the proximity to Asia and Africa.”
The coral-ringed, low-lying Maldives, south of India, is Asia’s smallest nation. It has the youngest Indian Ocean property market and also the most exclusive. The Maldives successfully promoted the concept of one resort, one island and today the bare facts can still astonish: 1,190 islands with an average size of about 50 acres, around 200 inhabited, of which 114 operate as holiday resorts and only a handful offer homes for sale. This exclusivity produces what Shivdasani evocatively calls a “Silicon Valley of high-end resorts”.
UK-educated Shivdasani and his Swedish wife Eva played a significant part in establishing the islands as a luxury destination when they decided to make their own home in the Maldives. They opened Soneva Fushi as a 45-room resort in 1995, when all supplies, everything from fresh water to building materials, arrived via slow and painfully unpredictable fishing boats from the capital Malé, 110km away. Today, Soneva Fushi is a 35-minute seaplane journey from Malé and has a 7,000-bottle wine cellar and a daily room rate of up to $34,035. At any one time, says Shivdasani, there will be at least 10 nationalities among the guests.
In 2011, under pressure from repeat guests, Soneva started selling villas, the first resort in the Maldives to do so. To date 12 have sold, with a further four plots available. Prices start from $3.5m and average $7m for bespoke one- to nine-bedroom villas.
Homes are hidden among dense foliage, each with a sandy path leading to the beach and that gin-clear sea. The rustic design features thatched roofs, chunky wooden staircases, rope bannisters, outdoor showers and a simple colourway of yellow, orange and green rough linen. In line with Soneva’s firm ecological and sustainable goals, there is no marble, no plastic and carefully selected hardwoods. This is castaway living for people who expect hot water on demand and a larder pre-stocked with grands crus.
Soneva Fushi has the largest beach villa currently for sale in the Indian Ocean. The 5,540sq m nine-bedroom Private Reserve has a price of $15m and comes with its own spa, gym and sauna complex. Lighter touches include a twisting slide from the first floor into the large pool.
The burgeoning Asian market – particular fans of overwater villas – is one reason why Shivdasani has developed a second Maldives resort. Soneva Jani, one exhilarating hour by speedboat from Soneva Fushi or 40 minutes by seaplane from Malé, opens next month with a mix of overwater and beach villas for sale (from $3m). Jani is one and a half times as large as Fushi and encircled by a coral reef that produces an electrifyingly beautiful 5.6km lagoon.
Buying a home in the Maldives is not without risks. Property is sold leasehold on leases of up to 50 years (there are tentative plans to increase this to 99) and resales in such a nascent high-end market are largely untested. Despite that, buyers from the US, Sweden and the UK have already signed up at Soneva Jani.
“All three were existing Soneva enthusiasts,” says Shivdasani, pointing proudly to his 52 per cent repeat rate for hotel guests. “But they are also aware of the scarcity of homes in the Maldives. Over the past four years we can demonstrate that like-for-like villas have risen 40 per cent in price.” He goes on to say that he’s seen an eight per cent annual compound growth on hotel room rates at Soneva Fushi over the past two decades, with demand outstripping supply. The returns that can be generated from villa rentals might be expected to follow the same positive pattern.
Located 2,200km west of the Maldives and four degrees below the equator, the Seychelles share the same retina-popping colours on sea and shore, but with green hills and rainforests added into the mix. The 115 islands – some coral, some granite and only 16 of them offering visitor accommodation – provide more variety than the Maldives, but have the same honeymoon-ready vibe.
Greener and less humid than the Maldives and less developed and accessible than Mauritius, the Seychelles has started to reclaim land from the sea. Eden Island is a significant new marina for the Indian Ocean, 40 hectares of canals and berths linked to Mahé by a bridge with apartments and freehold villas. Savills is selling the final 60 of the 500 homes (from $475,000), where many owners bought purely for the berths that come with the properties.
Foreign nationals have been able to buy a freehold home in the Seychelles since 2007, but there are restrictions: the government must approve all purchases, a slow but routine process, and homes can only be rented out if they are on a government-approved resort. “Since the law changed, top brands such as Four Seasons have entered the market, offering spacious and luxurious private residences with five-star concierge and hotel facilities,” says Robert Green, MD of Sphere Estates. “Buyers are particularly attracted by the strength of the brand, which promises impeccable service and a secure investment. Owners benefit from no capital gains tax and a low fee structure of 5 per cent stamp duty. They can transfer sales proceeds in full and rent out their homes through the Four Seasons Rental Programme.”
The Four Seasons Private Residences are substantial villas with wooden walkways, vast teak sundecks and sleeping “pods” – think ultra-private living where you can spy passing marine life from your room while knowing that there are all the facilities of a Four Seasons resort at the bottom of the steep hillside. Sphere Estates is selling the final eight of 27 three- to six-bedroom homes from $7.25m.
Sphere Estates also has homes at Zil Pasyon on Félicité, a densely planted private island between La Digue and Praslin 20 minutes by helicopter from the international airport. With Six Senses appointed to manage the resort, Zil Pasyon opens this month as a 30-room hotel with an initial 14 homes for sale. The three‑to five-bedroom contemporary villas sold on 90-year leases are priced from $4.9m up to $11.4m.
“The majority of buyers in the Seychelles come from the Middle East, UK, France, Italy and Germany, with the Chinese starting to take an interest,” comments Green. “Transport links are improving all the time. Last year, for example, Air Seychelles, which is 40 per cent owned by Etihad Airways, launched direct flights three times a week between Mahé and Paris.”
Standout beaches totalling 150km, one of the world’s largest coral reefs and the best range of water and land activities of these three Indian Ocean nations make mountainous Mauritius a popular choice for an island home. Service levels are high and the natural beauty is off the scale. Mauritius is one of Africa’s success stories, a business-minded country with strong earnings from the offshore banking, textiles and IT industries and a stalwart of the upmarket holiday industry. Holiday homebuyers here have a wide choice of properties, with government-approved schemes available on golf courses, marinas and beaches.
The island’s blended heritage, a mix of Indian, French, Creole and British roots, encouraged many nationalities to buy there from 2002, when the government opened up the property market. The Integrated Resort Scheme (IRS) allowed foreigners spending a minimum of $500,000 to buy homes on pre-approved resorts and to benefit from Mauritian residency and its low tax regime. In 2007 a second scheme, the Real Estate Scheme, was added, extending property rights for foreigners.
Recently both schemes have been reworked through the Property Development Scheme (PDS), streamlining the process. Foreign nationals can purchase property on approved schemes at any price point, but residency benefits still only apply to those spending over $500,000.
“Buyers were initially drawn to Mauritius by relatively low prices, significantly less than a similar property in Barbados, with the added bonus of automatic residency and tax advantages through IRS,” says Green. “I found it was one of the last destinations to be hit by the global financial crisis and while sales slowed, prices in general did not fall. Since 2014 sales have picked up and it is now one of our most enquired about destinations worldwide.”
Savills is marketing six PDS developments in Mauritius, three around Grand-Baie (from $1.2m) and three on the prized west coast, while Sphere Estates has beach, golf course and marina developments. Rather like the Caribbean, a dwindling sugar industry led large landowners to consider what else to do with their fields of billowing sugar cane. The answer they arrived at was that familiar staple of overseas holiday homes: golf courses with property for sale.
First out of the blocks was Tamarina Golf & Beach Estate, 119 villas on an 18-hole championship golf course between the mountains and the sea on the west coast. Sales started in 2006 and today resale homes, low level with wide verandas and lush gardens, start from $2.1m through Savills.
Mauritius has 12 courses, several designed by golfing greats such as Ernie Els, Gary Player and Bernhard Langer. Villas Valriche is an IRS development on the former Bel Ombre sugar estate on the quieter southwest coast, bordering the Frédérica Nature Reserve and 40 minutes from the airport. There are two golf courses, a championship 18-hole and a nine-hole par three, with a clubhouse, spa and beach club. Homes sit on a gentle slope overlooking the sea and can be customised for buyers. Those already sold and built showcase the open-plan plantation design, with private gardens and pools. Prices of the two- to five-bedroom homes start from $659,000 through Sphere Estates.
“The Indian Ocean real-estate market is still very much in its infancy, but is proving a popular choice among those looking for idyllic and tropical destinations,” concludes Green. “They all feature low-density developments, good personal and economic security, excellent lifestyle benefits and the potential to gain from capital appreciation, with prices still arguably competitive with their Caribbean and Asian rivals.”