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Business Comment

James Ashton: Come to Singapore, but be aware of the rules - chewing gum is bad, gambling is very, very good

Global Outlook It is hard to reconcile buttoned-up Singapore's transformation into the world's second-largest gambling mecca. On the one hand, chewing gum is banned and possession of a few grams of cannabis can lead to instant imprisonment. On the other, one of the original Asian tigers opened a crystal-topped cathedral of gambling four years ago that has been a roaring success. Stud poker is a particular favourite.

Singapore's move into gaming on a grand scale came when the Government, intent on building the city state's tourism trade, licensed two so-called "integrated resorts" with gaming at their heart. The most prominent of these is Marina Bay Sands, whose three towers, with a "sky park" featuring an infinity pool balanced along the top, dominate the bay-side skyline.

Of course it isn't just gaming. Reportedly built for a cool £4bn, there is row after row of luxury shops and high-end restaurants. Sheldon Adelson, chief executive of Las Vegas Sands, which owns the complex, made his first fortune from the Comdex conference business, so it stands to reason there is an exhibition centre too, plus an arts and science space, currently featuring the furniture design of Charles and Ray Eames, in a lotus flower-shaped building that Mr Adelson christened the "welcoming hand".

A mid-range suite complete with baby grand piano, karaoke room and personal gym could set you back £5,000 a night. David Beckham and Justin Bieber have sampled the facilities at one time or another. Altogether, it makes its sister resort, The Venetian in Las Vegas, look like something from Toytown.

Marina Bay Sands' boss, George Tanasijevich, is thrilled with how it has traded since the doors opened, with revenues ramping up faster than he expected. Despite the perception that it is drawing in "off the leash" middle-class Chinese, he reports that the biggest-visiting nationals are the Japanese, making up a fifth of guests.

Locals still have a slight unease about it all. Mr Tanasijevich talks about how the group is adept at "balancing social and commercial interests". That means it is marketed squarely at incomers, with advertising in Singapore kept low-key and locals who want a flutter made to pay a £50 daily entry fee, or £1,000 per year, when foreigners can walk in free.

Opening up to gaming has been a key part of Singapore's tourist vision. Initially, the idea was to get business people to tack a few days on to their work trip. Then they were encouraged to bring their families. Now that it has its own Universal Studios on Sentosa Island, together with a second casino complex and man-made beaches, they can stay a little longer.

Regional rivals Japan and South Korea have been left spluttering at the success. Mr Tanasijevich, who is also charged with looking out for new development opportunities for Las Vegas Sands, says they are the two countries keenest to build something similar. But it is interesting that Europe remains a black hole for these developments. In December Las Vegas Sands canned a project dubbed Eurovegas, which would have created six casinos and 12 hotels outside Madrid, following fallouts with the Spanish authorities. Of course, every government must decide the price that is worth paying for a boost to tourism numbers and tax revenues. But Eurovegas, expected to support up to 250,000 jobs, could have helped to ease Spain's youth unemployment crisis.

Back in Singapore, decision time is looming. It has already overtaken Las Vegas to lag only the former Portuguese colony of Macau as the world's top gambling den. When the exclusivity enjoyed by its first two casino resorts runs out in 2017, will the government be able to resist licensing a couple more?