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Philippines touted as new gambling haven

$1 billion casino-resort prepares to open

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MANILA, Philippines -- The Philippines will become one of the biggest gambling centres in the world, vying with Macau, Singapore and Las Vegas for Asia's high rollers, say spokesmen for a $1-billion casino resort that opened in Manila last weekend.

Studies project that the country's gambling revenue of $1.9 billion will rise to $6 billion, which is currently what Singapore's two casinos generate, in about five years, said Michael French, chief operating officer of the Solaire Resort and Casino.

Solaire will open on Saturday as one the country's biggest hotel-casino complexes in ceremonies to be attended by President Benigno Aquino III, who is targeting 10 million tourists by 2016.

It has 500 hotel rooms, 1,200 slot machines and 295 gaming tables, including those in private rooms with a view of Manila Bay for high rollers. It has eight restaurants, a spa, a night club, and will have a 1,800-seat Broadway-type theatre, French said.

It is the first of four such developments in the $4 billion Entertainment City being built on a 100-hectare (247-acre) property reclaimed from Manila Bay. The flagship of Bloomberry Resorts Corp. is majority owned by one of the Philippines' wealthiest men, container ports operator Enrique Razon.

The Entertainment City development is potential employment and economic bonanza for the Philippines. Its reputation as a tourist destination has been tarnished by reports of crime, including kidnappings, alongside insurgent violence and the operation of a notorious militant Islamic group in the country's south.

The country has not yet recovered from the drop in the number of visitors from Hong Kong following the killing of eight tourists from the Chinese administrative region by a dismissed police officer in Manila in August 2010, just two months after Aquino took office.

The hotel-casino currently has 4,500 employees and will employ about 500 more, French said. About half of the staff work for the casino, including 400 senior officers who have worked for years in casinos in Macau, Singapore and in cruise liners, he said.

French said the hotel-casino will offer an "East meets West" venue, combining "the glitz and grandeur and the sparkle of Las Vegas" and the "Macau experience" of VIP gambling.

He said the Philippines' 15 per cent tax on casino operations compared to 40 per cent in Macau is the country's main attraction, especially for junket operators who will earn a bigger margin here when they bring in the high rollers from Southeast Asia and China.

"For those who are in the gaming business, which is what fuels Macau, this is a better financial deal for them," he said.

Lorraine Koo, vice-president for business development, said Solaire is "more inclined" toward international players and 61 of 100 VIP tables have been set aside for junket clients.

"The Philippines itself is a very attractive tourist destination," she said. "The only issue we might possibly have is we may not be perceived that way. All we need is one chance to be able to show our international players how great the Philippines is."

The casino faced opposition from the Roman Catholic church hierarchy who say it promotes a "culture of gambling."

The government says casinos in the reclamation area will be part of a total entertainment package that will generate jobs and tourism revenues.

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 30, 2013 D2

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