Barcelona Banks on Superyachts, Becoming a Hub

The city has become a hub for billionaires’ superyachts, banking on the strength of the “blue economy.”

BARCELONA, Spain — Launched less than a year ago, the 460-foot-long, eight-deck Solaris is one the newest of the superyachts that are the floating palaces of the sea. It has a helipad, of course, plus a swimming pool and all the other high-tech amenities required by its Russian billionaire owner, Roman Abramovich.

But on a recent morning in Barcelona, the $600 million Solaris was out of the water, wedged into a dry dock, as workers toiled underneath its light-gray hull. They were fixing its finlike stabilizers, which help steady the massive vessel in rough seas but retract when there are no swells. At the opposite end of the boatyard, another giant, the Sea Rhapsody, was getting a final checkup before being put back into the water.

As the rich have gotten richer during the pandemic, their boats have gotten larger and more expensive — and when these over-the-top superyachts aren’t taking their owners to private holiday spots in the Caribbean and the Mediterranean, they need a place to drop anchor and deal with repairs.

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The Sea Rhapsody heading for repairs at the shipyard, which is run by the company MB92.Credit…Samuel Aranda for The New York Times

And it is here that Barcelona, whose days as a commercial shipyard faded years ago, sees an economic opportunity.

Barcelona has turned itself into a hub for these luxury vessels, combining a private marina that is investing 20 million euros ($22.7 million) this year to turn itself into the largest port reserved for superyachts in the Mediterranean and maintenance facilities that can hoist behemoths out of the water and then summon a small army to do repairs.

And it doesn’t hurt that Barcelona offers the ships’ crew members downtime in one of the Mediterranean’s biggest tourism destinations.

Attracting billionaire yacht owners is only a small part of Barcelona’s efforts to tap into the “blue economy” of the sea, said Jaume Collboni, the deputy mayor. Barcelona’s port authority recently approved the construction of a new terminal for cruise ships, set to open in 2024. The city is also overhauling the seafront area that was developed for the Summer Olympics of 1992, which Barcelona hosted.

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Much of the work at the MB92 yard is done by about 1,000 subcontractors.Credit…Samuel Aranda for The New York Times

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About 40 workshops are scattered around the shipyard.Credit…Samuel Aranda for The New York Times

The pandemic was a huge blow for a city that normally welcomes millions of visitors. It showed that “diversification is becoming very important,” Mr. Collboni said. “When tourism dropped down to zero, some parts of the city were heavily affected, and we have needed to find new jobs, also for a less qualified work force.”

At the same time, the spread of the coronavirus gave the world’s billionaires a new excuse for keeping their distance from other people, a role perfectly suited for superyachts.

Worldwide about 5,700 yachts are over 30 meters long (just under 100 feet), and this fleet is set to expand 15 percent by 2025, according to industry projections. At the pinnacle of this market are about 370 megayachts of over 60 meters, whose number has risen 70 percent in the past decade and is forecast to reach 500 in about seven years. Construction yards have been struggling to keep up: The order book for superyachts is full until 2025.

MB92, the company that operates Barcelona’s superyacht maintenance facility, known as a refit yard, has 180 employees, but much of the labor is carried out by about 1,000 subcontractors whose jobs cover a variety of specialties, including painting, carpentry and insulation work. About 40 workshops are scattered around the yard, and during the peak repair seasons of spring and fall the yard can work on about 25 yachts at a time.

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MB92 can work on about 25 yachts at a time during the peak spring and fall repair seasons. Credit…Samuel Aranda for The New York Times

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A blacksmith working on an iron piece for a luxury yacht.Credit…Samuel Aranda for The New York Times

The yacht maintenance business has been jumping. MB92, which also owns a smaller yard in La Ciotat, France, reported revenue of EUR191 million (about $215 million) in 2021, up from EUR150 million in 2019.

Even if a superyacht is a striking showcase of wealth, owners expect those working for them to keep silent about their assets and whereabouts. When asked about the Sea Rhapsody’s destination once it left the yard, Henk Dreijer, the commercial director of MB92, demurred, suggesting that it was bound for “the Caribbean, but it could also be the Seychelles or somewhere else.”

“We work for people who like to be very discreet,” he added.

In Barcelona, which is led by a left-wing city government, not everybody welcomes the arrival of billionaires and their yachts, whose marinas are typically fenced off from the rest of the city’s waterfront.

“We are bringing in the richest people in the world, but they don’t spend their money in our local neighborhoods, they have yachts that fly the flags of tax havens, and they hire crews who are not from Barcelona,” said Gala Pin, a city lawmaker in Barcelona until 2019.

“We have also allowed private and very opaque companies to squeeze profits from public land and instead fence off access to a port area that should be enjoyed by all the citizens of Barcelona,” she added.

A decade ago, Ms. Pin and other residents held demonstrations to protest the initial project to develop Port Vell, a privately owned marina for luxury yachts. But Ms. Pin now concedes that the yacht business is very firmly anchored in Barcelona. Meanwhile, the city’s dwindling fishing fleet is squeezed into a small enclave, sandwiched between MB92’s yard and the superyacht marina.

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While Barcelona’s yacht business has been growing, the local fishing fleet has been dwindling.Credit…Samuel Aranda for The New York Times

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In the shadow of the luxury yachts, fishing boats require maintenance, too.Credit…Samuel Aranda for The New York Times

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Residents near the marina. A former city lawmaker said the superyachts brought people who “don’t spend their money in our local neighborhoods.”Credit…Samuel Aranda for The New York Times

Port Vell is in the midst of a major overhaul to become the largest superyacht marina in the Mediterranean. It is jointly owned by QInvest, a Qatari investment firm, and a group of investors led by Vagit Alekperov, the president of the Russian oil company Lukoil. Mr. Alekperov is also a partner in a fund run by Squircle Capital, a private equity firm based in Luxembourg. In 2019, Squircle bought a majority stake in MB92, the shipyard operator.

Even if the owners spend little time in Barcelona, the largest of these yachts have several dozen crew members who make lengthy stays and are “people with salaries that are generally higher than local salaries and money that they have not been spending on board,” said Ignacio Erroz, the director general of Port Vell. He said a PwC study commissioned by his company had estimated that Port Vell contributed EUR30 million a year to Barcelona’s economy.

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Ignacio Erroz, the director general of Port Vell, said the marina contributed about 30 million euros a year to Barcelona’s economy. Credit…Samuel Aranda for The New York Times

Mr. Erroz forecast that Barcelona would continue to grow as a superyacht hub, in large part because “being able to anchor right in the heart of a big city is a major selling point.” But he also anticipated tougher competition.

“I think we will see many more existing ports adapting their infrastructure to welcome this kind of boat,” he said.

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