Meet Asia's Rising Millionaires, Who Earn in the East and Spend in the West

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High net-worth Asians are increasingly numerous, but often take their money abroad.

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Shoppers gather at the Millionaires' Fair in Shanghai. (AP)

North American millionaires, you're no longer at the top of the heap. According to a report issued last week by Capgemini consultancy and RBC Wealth Management, the Asia-Pacific region now has, for the first time ever, more individuals with more than $1 million in investable assets than North America. The proportion of people who are millionaires is still much higher in North America than in Asia. As the report points out, last year North America's millionaires dropped 1.1 percent to 3.35 million households, while Asia's increased 1.6 percent to 3.7 million.

Given comparatively strong growth in its economy last year, China led the pack with 562,400 millionaires, an increase of 5.2 percent over 2010. And despite broader economic malaise worsened by last year's tsunami, Japan saw a 4.8 percent increase. The findings weren't so rosy for everybody in Asia -- India and Hong Kong saw a nearly 20 percent decrease in millionaires last year -- but emerging regional players like Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia saw gains in the newly minted.

Though North America remains the world's wealthiest region overall, with investable assets of $11.4 trillion, compared to $10.7 trillion in the Asia-Pacific region, the report reflects the broader eastward shift in the balance of economic power that has become increasingly apparent in the face of economic uncertainty in North America and Europe. As all the headline-grabbing news and stories of wealthy Asian buyers "snapping up" property, high-end cars, and distressed companies around the world would indicate, this is clearly an important development. What should we know about Asia's millionaires?

1. They're great news for luxury brands, but no longer a slam dunk

Since the dog days of the global economic crisis, Asia has emerged as one of the only bright spots for major luxury brands. While the glimmer has dimmed somewhat in Japan and South Korea since their spending frenzies in the 1980s and '90s, China in particular has become a critical market for most of the world's top high-end brands since 2009. According to McKinsey & Co. projections, China remains on track to hit luxury sales of $27 billion by 2015, becoming in the process the world's top luxury market.

In the face of an otherwise stagnant European market, leading luxury groups like LVMH, Richemont, and PPR rely on spending from the growing influx of wealthy Asian tourists, who regularly outspend Russian, American, and European shoppers. But China and its consumers aren't the only growth story for luxury brands operating in a still-buoyant Asia. Brands are also eagerly eyeing "blank slate" markets like Vietnam, Indonesia and India, with luxury groups like LVMH recently making tentative moves into places like Ho Chi Minh City, Phnom Penh and Jakarta.

At the same time, consumers in Japan and South Korea have, according to other recent surveys, remained highly "luxury friendly," with shoppers in both countries continuing to spend on high-end items, yet being more discerning and demanding than in years past. This shift indicates the key insight about Asia's wealthy shoppers and their relationship with high-end goods: their role as ever-changing markers of status.

2. They're traveling, and venturing further afield

Whether going abroad for business or pleasure, Asia's millionaires are traveling further afield and looking for new activities, providing opportunity for destinations offering "experiences" rather than the stereotypical guided sightseeing tour. Though newly wealthy travelers making their first overseas jaunt will probably stick to the shopping spree in New York or Paris, more seasoned tourists are spending more on individualized experiences, whether they be Hawaiian helicopter tours, art education courses in London or African safaris.

Following in the footsteps of the veteran Japanese, South Korean, Taiwanese and Singaporean travelers who preceded them, mainland Chinese millionaires in particular now are looking for travel experiences that are personalized and -- perhaps more importantly -- private, while Indian tourists are becoming known for spending lavishly on destination weddings.

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Avery Booker is the editor of Jing Daily, a leading bilingual digital publication focusing on the business of luxury and culture in China.

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