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Even if he wanted to, tech billionaire Peter Thiel couldn’t escape the coronavirus and flee to his 193-hectare isolated estate on the South Island of New Zealand.
That’s because the President Donald Trump donor and venture capitalist — who reportedly made over $1 billion off an early $750,000 bet on Facebook — is yet to build a property on the sprawling plot that he’s owned for almost half a decade, according to records held by the local authority and nearby residents.
Thiel bought the plot at Glendhu Bay in 2015 for an undisclosed price through a New Zealand registered company called Second Star, in which he is the sole shareholder.
What’s to say he hasn’t built a monumental bunker deep under the plot? Well, in order to build a new residence among the rolling hills of his estate, which sits on the shores of the tranquil Lake Wanaka, Thiel would have to submit an application to get planning permission. He is yet to do that, according to a public database of planning applications that was analyzed by CNBC. Not all of these have to be made public, however.
Queenstown Lakes District Council confirmed in July 2018 that “no applications have been received from Mr Thiel nor his businesses.”
Local residents told CNBC that they haven’t seen any activity on the plot. “I have heard nothing and nothing is evident when you drive past the property or bike past it along the lakeside,” said Julian Haworth, who lives in Wanaka.
However, CNBC understands that Thiel has been in contact with at least three architecture firms in New Zealand. The firms include: Sumich Chaplin, Mason & Wales and Fearon Hay, which has studios in Auckland and Los Angeles, where Thiel also has a home. None of the architects responded to a request for comment.
CNBC also reached out to Thiel and his representatives for this article but is yet to receive a response.
Mecca for preppers
Located at the edge of the Earth, New Zealand has become popular in recent years with so-called “preppers” — those who try to prepare for catastrophic events that may pose a threat to humanity. Today, there’s even a website dedicated to those wanting to prep their families for “survival” in New Zealand.
Last month, Bloomberg reported that wealthy Americans are activating their pandemic plans as a result of the coronavirus crisis, with some even relocating to New Zealand.
The piece opens with a reference to a Silicon Valley tech chief who forgot how to unlock his multi-million dollar underground bunker in New Zealand, which he had never used before. Gary Lynch, the general manager of bunker provider Rising S Co, received a call in March from the mystery businessman asking how to get into the shelter and get everything working, according to the report.
Lake Wanaka and the surrounding hills.
The prepper craze was first put under the spotlight in January 2017, when an article in The New Yorker titled “Doomsday prep for the super-rich” revealed how New Zealand is essentially like a mecca for wealthy preppers. It’s remote, geopolitically stable, and sparsely populated. Importantly, it could also become completely self-sufficient in terms of water, food, and energy if it ever needed to.
“Saying you’re buying a house in New Zealand is kind of a wink, wink, say no more,” LinkedIn cofounder Reid Hoffman is quoted saying in the article.
A year earlier, Sam Altman, the former president of the prestigious Y-Combinator accelerator program, told the same magazine that he planned to fly to Thiel’s house in New Zealand in the case of a pandemic.
It’s unclear which house Altman was referring to as Thiel has owned a number of properties in New Zealand over the years, albeit on significantly smaller plots. That includes a four-bedroom home in neighboring Queenstown, which he bought in 2011 for $4.8 million and subsequently kitted out with a panic room after a fire. He has also owned property in Auckland.
Thiel’s love for Aotearoa (the Maori name for the country) goes a long way back.
The serial entrepreneur, who cofounded PayPal, Palantir and a number of other companies, first visited New Zealand in 1995 when he was 28, according to an in-depth investigation by The New Zealand Herald.
He’s also a huge fan of “The Lord of the Rings” movie trilogy, which is filmed in New Zealand. At least five of his businesses have names inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels. Palantir, for example, is named after the seven seeing-stones in “The Lord of the Rings” that can be used to communicate with others, while his VC firm Mithril Ventures is named after a metal in the fantasy series that can “protect” and be “transformative.”
When it comes to prepping, Thiel said he’s been influenced by a book published in 1997 called “The Sovereign Individual: How to Survive and Thrive During the Collapse of the Welfare State,” according to The Guardian.
“New Zealand is already utopia,” Thiel told Business Insider in 2011, the year that he became a New Zealand citizen. In his citizenship application, he said he’d found “no other country that aligns more with my view of the future than New Zealand.”