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BY NICHOLAS NEHAMAS
A group of nearly 20 top Chinese real estate brokers are touring luxury condo projects in South Florida this weekend as local developers seek to drum up business in the Far East.
The attraction of Miami is clear.
“Just look at this,” said Gene Shi, president of international operations for China’s massive Homelink brokerage, as he gestured toward Biscayne Bay, its waters shimmering out the window of the Missioni Baia sales center in Edgewater on Friday. “This is something you could never dream of, even for a millionaire in New York City. But this is a typical view for a citizen of Miami.”
Another advantage: Miami offers much lower prices than Manhattan and San Francisco, the traditional U.S. hot spots for Chinese buyers.
Between April 2015 and March 2016, Chinese buyers splurged on U.S. real estate to the tune of $27.3 billion, far more than second-place Canada, whose residents spent $8.9 billion, according to the National Association of Realtors.
But only a small portion of that money found its way to South Florida. Without a direct flight from Miami to China, it will be difficult to attract more capital.
Chinese buyers made up just 2 percent of international sales in Miami-Dade and Broward counties in 2015, according to the Miami Association of Realtors. While that number has doubled since 2012, it still pales in comparison to Latin American buyers, whose cash fueled Miami’s recent real estate boom.
With currencies tanking in major markets like Brazil and Venezuela, Miami brokers are turning to new buyers.
“We’ve always had our eye to the Asian markets,” said Jesse Ottley, president of development sales at brokerage Cervera Real Estate. “As we watched the capital flow out of China over the last five years, we at Cervera thought that was the time to make our move.”
Ottley said Cervera projects in Miami and Fort Lauderdale have made sales to Chinese buyers. He pointed to a growing number of Chinese students at the University of Miami as another encouraging sign.
At Elysee, another condo project in Edgewater, broker Jennifer Cervera preached the benefits of the nearby Design District, Miami’s growing luxury shopping destination.
“If you start shopping there, you won’t leave,” she said.
This is far from the first time that the local real estate industry has reached out to Chinese buyers. Some Miami brokers have traveled to China to pitch new developments. One condo project, Paramount Miami Worldcenter, even hired a feng shui consultant to advise on design.
And China City Construction Co., a developer owned by the Chinese government, spent more than $110 million on land in Brickell and Miami Beach.
Everyone on the tour agreed that a direct flight from Miami to Beijing or another Asian location is crucial.
“A direct flight would be a big factor,” said Frank Peng, who leads Cervera’s marketing efforts in Asia. “If you look at the other major cities in the United States, every single one had direct flights before the Chinese invested, no exceptions.”
Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. is considering a larger plane that would allow for direct flights between Hong Kong and Miami. Officials at Miami International Airport have said they hope to land a regular direct flight from Cathay or another airline within the next 24 months.
The Cervera firm organized the visit with Beijing-based Homelink, which has more than 60,000 agents in China. The two groups recently signed a joint marketing agreement. Miami brokerage International Sales Group inked a similar deal with Homelink last year.
The Chinese company selected brokers with annual minimum sales of $17 million to come on this trip, its second of the year to Miami. Stops in New York and San Francisco are also on the agenda.
This time around, the visitors heard from Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado, Commissioner Ken Russell and officials from Miami’s Downtown Development Authority.
On Saturday, the group will drive to Fort Lauderdale and finish the day with shopping at Sawgrass Mills mall in Sunrise.