Booming Asian casinos draw tourist dollars

The gambler leans back comfortably in his chair at a card table inside Vietnam's new Crown casino, waiting for his female companion to fetch more cash.

At Asia's casinos, the money just keeps on coming.

Analysts say the region's increasing wealth is funding a gambling boom that saw Macau overtake Las Vegas in casino revenue, is putting billions of dollars into Singapore's coffers and encouraged operators like Crown to try cashing in, although for now only foreigners are allowed in Vietnam's casinos.

Crown is owned by Hoang Dat Silver Shores, which is backed by a US-based Chinese national.

While Macau remains by far the region's largest casino market, governments from Sri Lanka to Fiji are also eyeing gambling parlours as a way to help attract more tourist dollars.

"The key drivers are rising incomes and pent-up demand for gaming, considering the high appetite to gamble in many Asian cultures," says Aaron Fischer, a gaming analyst at CLSA brokerage in Hong Kong.

Casinos in the southern Chinese enclave of Macau earned a record $23.5 billion last year, up about 58 percent from 2009, according to official figures.

Fuelled by Chinese punters, Macau's take was about four times the revenue on the Las Vegas Strip, and is set to rise even further, Fischer said.

In Singapore, where two casino complexes opened in 2010, revenue this year is seen hitting $6.5 billion, rivalling the current take in Las Vegas, he added.

Asia could overtake the United States to become the world's biggest legal casino gaming market by the end of next year, said Jonathan Galaviz, casino industry analyst and chief economist at US-based Galaviz and Co consultancy.

Thanks partly to its casinos, tourist arrivals in Singapore reached a record 11.6 million last year and helped the economy grow almost 15 percent, analysts said.

More than half of the visitors were from Indonesia, China, Australia, Malaysia and India, according to the city-state's tourism board.

Macau, a former Portuguese colony, is the only Chinese city where casinos are legal, forcing card sharks and slot machine players to visit the specially-administered territory or venture further afield for legal gambling.

While Macau's many casinos concentrate on gambling, Singapore's formula of "integrated resorts" combines two casinos with other attractions, which Galaviz says makes sense.

"Most governments in Asia would like to see their casino strategies actually be tourist growth strategies," he says.

Singapore's Resorts World Sentosa, built by Malaysia's Genting Group, boasts a large gaming area as well as Southeast Asia's first Universal Studios theme park.

Marina Bay Sands, developed by Las Vegas Sands, offers hundreds of gaming tables and more than 1,500 slot machines. Both complexes include hotels, conference venues, museums, restaurants, theatres and retail outlets.

Australian casinos have taken a similar approach and many are upgrading their facilities to counter Singapore and Macau.

On a smaller scale is Danang's $160-million Silver Shores International Resort. The five-star beachfront property has hundreds of hotel rooms alongside restaurants, convention, retail and recreation facilities - and the Crown casino.

"Here, they can have everything," the hotel's assistant public relations manager, Pham Thi Hoang Van, said of her customers. "Most of the guests are from charter flights from Hong Kong and China."

Vietnam, like many other Asian countries, tightly controls casino gambling. Some provinces have been allowed to open one casino each - for foreigners only - but Hanoi is discussing a liberalisation, said Huynh Duc Tho, director of the Department of Planning and Investment in Danang.

He said Crown, which under the law is promoted as a "club" not a casino, has helped bring tourists to Vietnam's fourth-largest city, boosting the economy.

"Thanks to this casino a lot of people come," earning the city billions of dong (more than $100,000) in taxes every month.

Tho expects that, when finalised in about five years, the new regulations may allow Vietnamese to gamble.

"You can see a lot of Vietnamese go abroad to enjoy casinos. It's no good at all for the economy," Tho said.

Vietnamese and Thais, whose country also bans gambling, are thought to spend tens of millions of dollars annually at Cambodian border casinos.

A similar situation existed in Nepal, where Indians went to escape restrictions on gambling, until India allowed gambling halls in two of its states, including northeastern Sikkim where the first casino opened two years ago.

Whether or not Vietnam changes its laws, Canada's Asian Coast Development Ltd expressed confidence an integrated resort it is developing near Ho Chi Minh City will succeed.

It said foundations have been laid for a hotel tower to be run by Las Vegas-based MGM Resorts International in the first phase of a $4.2-billion development.

The company says it will build two casinos and five luxury resorts on the Ho Tram Strip beachfront by 2020.

"Even with the tremendous success of Macau and Singapore as regional gaming destinations, the industry is largely underdeveloped when compared to North America and Europe," the Asian Coast website says.

Manila's gaming regulator said last year that the Philippines also hopes to see Singapore-style integrated resorts developed, to tap the Chinese market.

Analysts say Japan, which has been debating whether to legalise casinos, is expected to open integrated resorts within five years while Taiwan could take moves to legalise casinos this year.

"The growth in casino gaming in Asia is not just isolated to China. It's an Asia-wide phenomenon," Galaviz said.



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