SEOUL, South Korea, Jan. 22, 2010 — -- The dreams some cruise lovers have of a life spent on the seas may not be too far away.
A Beverly Hills company has announced plans to launch a $1.1 billion ocean liner, called the Utopia, in 2013, featuring private luxury residences for people who want to cruise the seas year-round.
"We're creating an ideal place… where people can travel with their home all over the world and have the same people taking care of them 24 hours a day in every city that they visit," said David Robb, chairman of the firm working on Utopia. "It's like having a waterfront villa in 30 cities around the world."
The core idea of this project is its event-driven itinerary. The opulent Utopia is to go on perpetual tour, visiting world-famous events and festivals. For example, the ship would go to Sydney, Australia, for New Year's Eve fireworks over the famed opera house there. It would dock near Paris for Fashion Week, go to the Mediterranean for the Monte Carlo Gran Prix and the Cannes Film Festival, or stop in Rio de Janeiro for the Carnival.
"The cruises I took before were very short and a limited experience where everything was planned for me and I had no say in what and when I do things," said Hannah Shin, 22, a schoolteacher who says living on Utopia would be her ideal lifestyle.
But the glitzy lifestyle comes with a glitzy price tag. There are 200 residences up for sale, starting at $3.9 million for 1,400 square feet of space. The most luxurious residence offered is a 40,000-square-foot cabin ordered by a European family for more than $160 million, the company says.
Utopia would also have a 204-room floating boutique hotel for short-term stays. Amenities include a casino, spa, theater, swimming pools, and retractable marina.
The company said it expects more than 60 percent of sales to be generated from outside the United States.
Potential buyers with purchase commitments include "captains of industry, leading entertainment people, leading people in the arts, and the founder of a very major video game company," Robb said. Names cannot be made public for privacy purposes, but the list of who's who also includes prominent wealthy families from Australia, China, and Turkey, he said.
Utopia to Host Super-Elite Community
"It won't be for a temporary 'let's have fun for a week' experience… it seems a life adventure," said Yohsuke Yamakawa, 23, a frequent cruise traveler. On Utopia, "you'll get to feel exclusive and inclusive at the same time, mingling with the people of similar financial status and social class."
Robb said that the bonding experience "will create one of the tightest knit, one of the most elite communities" in the world.
"There's something unique in the human DNA. When you get on the watercraft, whether it's a small rowboat or a sailboat or an ocean liner, there's a unique bonding experience that takes place."
But launching such luxury in tough economic times raises questions, analysts say.
"The question is, how many people can they keep on board at a given time? If there are only few people on board, you won't have the right kind of cruising atmosphere," said Kari Reinikainen, U.K. correspondent for Cruise Business Review, an international cruise industry publication, in a phone interview.
Entering an already-saturated cruise market hit by the global recession involves high risk. But industry watchers say Utopia's strong financial investors will provide a buffer.
"The difference with Utopia is that they are fully funded and won't be backed down by trying to finance the project," Reinikainen said. Money is coming from the Frontier Group, a U.S. private equity firm founded by former Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci, who also co-founded The Carlyle Group.
Frontier Group's $1.1 billion order to manufacture the 973-foot, 105,000-ton ocean liner was made to South Korea's Samsung Heavy Industries, the world's second largest shipbuilder after Hyundai Heavy Industries.
"This is a high-risk, high-profile venture. If it works out, the benefits will be great for the sector," Reinikainen said. Due to the recession, the shipbuilding industry suffered a huge blow. Utopia is the first significant passenger vessel ordered in 20 months by any ship builder in the global market.
"This is monumental," grinned J. K. Kim, vice president of Samsung Heavy Industries in Seoul. "We're very excited because it will also be the first passenger vessel in such a large scale built in Asia."
Danbee Lee contributed reporting to this story.