Manila bets big on casino to win place in gambling circuit

The Philippine government and gambling industry wants to lure the region’s many high-rollers to Entertainment City, a group of four mega-casinos that could earn the country US$10bn in revenues

By Cecil Morella  /  AFP, MANILA

Sun, Mar 17, 2013 - Page 14

The Philippines makes its biggest bet this weekend in a high-stakes bid to join the world’s elite gaming destinations, with the launch of a US$1.2 billion casino on Manila Bay.

Solaire Manila Resorts is the first of four enormous entertainment venues slated to rise over a giant chunk of prime, reclaimed land that Philippine industry and government leaders expect will attract millions of rich Asian tourists.

“What Solaire brings is an entertainment and gaming experience that doesn’t exist in the Philippines today,” chief operating officer Michael French told reporters in an interview this week ahead of yesterday’s opening. “It will be like going to Las Vegas. This raises the scale, the excitement and the ... glamor.”

Controlled by billionaire Philippine port operator Enrique Razon, Solaire has 300 gaming tables, 1,200 slot machines and seven restaurants. The building also has 500 hotel rooms and 2,000 parking slots.

It features glass ceilings filtering abundant tropical sunlight, huge chandeliers, thick red-themed carpets, blown glass wall-to-ceiling panels, water pools and an army of cocktail waitresses in tiny red dresses.

Another wing is being built to add 300 all-suite hotel rooms, 30 to 40 high-end shops and a theater where French plans to host traveling Broadway shows as well as local and foreign lounge acts.

Meanwhile, preparations are underway for the launch of the three other big-ticket casinos, which all involve major foreign backers. The four will together make up “Entertainment City,” located near Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport.

The Belle Grande — a joint venture between the Philippines’ richest man, Henry Sy, Australian billionaire James Packer and Macau gaming tycoon Lawrence Ho — is slated to open next year.

Japanese gambling magnate Kazuo Okada and Malaysia’s Genting Group are involved in the other two, each in partnership with local Chinese-Philippine tycoons. Both are expected to open between 2015 and 2017.

Cristino Naguiat, head of state regulator Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp, told reporters that he expected Philippine gaming revenues to double this year to US$2 billion because of the Solaire opening.

When all four are open, Entertainment City is expected to boost the country’s annual gaming revenues up to US$10 billion, he said.

The nation’s existing gambling revenues come from 13 relatively small casinos around the country run by the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp, the gaming regulator, and a bigger one in Manila run by Genting and a Philippine tycoon that opened in 2009.

While Macau counts US$38 billion in annual revenues, Naguiat is confident the Philippines will eventually have one of the biggest gambling industries in the world, comparing it with the Las Vegas strip’s roughly US$6 billion turnover.

“We will beat Las Vegas. I’m pretty sure of that,” he said.

Naguiat said the casinos were mainly targeting gamblers from Asia, adding that Manila is a mere three to four hours away by plane from any point in China, Japan and South Korea, where a large proportion of the world’s high rollers live.

“Actually, it’s a no-brainer. The big market is here in Asia,” he said.

Naguiat said that to make it easier for the foreign gamblers, a skyway roadlink to Manila airport is due to open in two years that will allow them to avoid the city’s notorious gridlock and reach Entertainment City in just five minutes.

The government has further sweetened the offer by taking just 27 percent in taxes off winnings for normal gamblers, compared with Macau’s 40 percent, Naguiat added.

High rollers have it even better, with winnings taxed at just 15 percent.

Naguiat said he saw Entertainment City as the key to the government’s ambitious bid to attract 10 million tourists a year and create more jobs in a country where a quarter of the workforce is unemployed or underemployed.

About 4.6 million tourists visited the country last year, compared with about 14 million for Singapore and 28 million for Macau.

He said that Entertainment City should easily employ 40,000 Filipinos when all four venues are open.

More than 50,000 Filipinos, some of them among the 9 million working in other countries, applied for 4,500 Solaire jobs last year, French said.

About 400 Philippine expatriates were brought back, including dealers and pit bosses from casinos in Macau and Singapore who were given managerial posts.

Others were chefs and hotel staff, including more than 20 from the Emirates Palace of Abu Dhabi, touted as the world’s most opulent hotel.

However, the casinos are stirring controversy in the mainly Roman Catholic nation, with critics saying the government’s embrace of gambling to solve the country’s financial woes is a dangerous signal.

“It gives false hope to people that they can find solutions to their financial problems by gambling,” said Catholic priest Rolly Flores, whose Our Lady of Sorrows church is 3km from the casino. “Only gambling lords thrive when people lose money by gambling.”