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Gulu Lalvani

One of Asia’s leading businessmen and the UK's fourth wealthiest Anglo Asian, Gulu first came to Phuket on holiday in 1991 and fell in love with the place. He decided to retire here but, typically for Gulu, retirement meant hard work. The result is Royal Phuket Marina – a 30-hectare multi-million dollar property on Phuket’s central east coast and Thailand’s first "world-class luxury lifestyle marina", along with a gated community of 100 residences, including villas with private mooring, penthouses with dedicated boat 'garage', a health club, two floodlit tennis courts, a day spa, waterfront restaurants and boutiques.

Where are you from? I was born in Karachi in Pakistan and raised in Mumbai the capital city of the Indian state of Maharashtra.

What made you decide to move to Phuket? For a long time my hobby was visiting three new destinations each year, chosen according to the four "S" factors: Sun, Sand, Sea and Sailing. In 1991 someone told me about a new resort in Phuket called Amanpuri, so I decided to try it out that Christmas. I took my wife and my family out on a yacht trip and what I saw that day was so mind bogglingly beautiful that before the end of the holiday I'd bought a villa at Amanpuri and stopped looking for new places to go. You could say that was the beginning of my love affair with Phuket. It was therefore a logical choice, when I retired in 2002, to move here.

What did you do before you came to Phuket? I was the founder and chairman of Binatone, the world’s second-largest manufacturer of cordless digital phones. I founded the company in 1958 and went on to consumer electronics and to telecoms in 1983 when telecoms became deregulated in the UK and Europe. At that time the company was based in the UK, but I moved the HQ to Hong Kong for the tax advantages and also to design, develop and manufacture the products in China for export all over Europe.

What do you like most about living in Phuket? Well, first of all its accessibility. Within three or so flying hours of Phuket you have 40% of the world’s population, with both China and India enjoying a GDP well above average. And I’m not alone in my ‘love affair’ with Phuket. When my daughter saw how romantic it is, she asked if she could get married here. “Well of course,” I replied, “but first there’s the small detail of finding a husband!” Anyway, it’s a wonderful wedding destination and yes, she did hold her wedding here – she married an Englishman.

What’s the most frustrating thing about living here?
That’s a good question. I think the political divide sometimes seems insurmountable – the yellow shirts and the red shirts is a difficult situation and can seem frustrating.

How do you spend your time?
I’m retired but I'm not the sort of person to spend all day every day on a golf course or diving or in a casino. I like to be 'doing' things. My hobby is boating and one of the first things I noticed here was the astronomical import taxes on boats; they added up to more than 240%! An imported million-dollar yacht would have had a ridiculous price tag. So I approached the then Prime Minister and was allowed a 15-minute slot with him. I told him that Thailand was in danger of losing out to Malaysia, where foreign yachts can can stay indefinitely without attracting import duties or taxes. Plus, unlike Phuket, Langkawi Island was a 100% duty free destination. I pointed out that in the last two years of my research, I'd found that not one single person had imported a yacht; 240% of nothing is nothing, I told him. I also said that if he brought the taxes down, I would build a world class marina here on the island.

He cancelled his following meeting and we ended up talking for a lot longer than 15 minutes. At the end of an hour he stood up, shook my hand, and said, “You can go ahead and look for the land.”

Tell us about Royal Phuket Marina.
We're in a premium spot – right in the middle of the island on the main road and within minutes of the top international school and a short drive from the airport – but the biggest challenge we've had is access for larger vessels at low tide. Finally, we've been able to get dredgers working on deepening the channel but, because of various factors outside our control, it's best not to try and predict when the work will be finished. I'm hopeful, though, that we're nearing the day when the channel into Royal Phuket Marina will be fully open and accessible 24 hours a day. Also we’re in phase three of our property development – introducing a new batch of more affordable one- and two-bedroom homes.

Are you involved in any local charities? Yes, I am but prefer to donate and support them rather than sit on committees. I simply don’t have the spare time.

How do you evaluate success? I enjoy my life and what I do and aim, as my legacy, to put Phuket on the map as a top yachting destination. I'll be happy to be remembered as the man who built Phuket's best marina and who got yacht import duty down to zero.

Postscript: During 2002 / 2003, a group of expatriates in the marine leisure industry, headed up initially by then UK Hon. Consul Alan Cooke MBE, formed the Marine Alliance of Thailand (MAT) and worked tirelessly with the Ministry of Tourism and Sport as well as with TAT and senior officials in the Customs, Marine, Revenue and Immigration departments, to create, and 'sell' to stakeholders, a convincing case for reduced import taxes on yachts. There's no doubt that the initial impetus for change came from the very top – and there's equally no doubt that there were several 'fingers in that pie'. While congratulating Gulu Lalvani on the major part he played, we should not forget the others who gave huge swathes of their time, talent and energy. After all, as Gulu himself says, he doesn't "sit on committees". Unfortunately, in government, the only way to get things finalised is by finding the time to work with, and convince, the people who have the power to block results.

MAT comprised Alan Cooke, Kevin Quilty (then Sunsail), Andy Stephens (then Royal Phuket Marina), Grenville Fordham
& Andy Dowden (co-founders of the Phuket Boatshow) and Vincent Tabuteau (Asia Marine). Apologies if anyone is forgotten.