By James Crabtree in Colombo
Faced with the necessity of reviving an economy ravaged by two decades of civil war, Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa is poised to make a particularly large wager: that the world’s biggest gambling groups want to flock to the south Asian island to set up a series of new mega-casinos.
Within weeks Mr Rajapaksa is set to green-light a $400m casino in the capital Colombo, co-owned by Australian tycoon James Packer’s Crown group – the first step in a plan to mimic Singapore’s success establishing a new regional gaming hub.
A second large-scale operation is being planned virtually next door, part of an approximately $700m hotel-and-retail complex from the nation’s largest listed company by revenue, John Keels Holdings, in what is one of the largest investments ever made by a Sri Lankan business.
Casinos are booming across Asia, with Singapore showing especially striking growth since legalising gaming in 2009. It now boasts two large facilities, run by US tycoon Sheldon Adelson and Malaysian gaming group Genting, with combined annual revenues of about $6bn.
This puts it roughly on par with the celebrated Las Vegas Strip. Yet both pale next to the enclave of Macau, the only place where gambling is legal in China, which reported gaming revenues of $38bn in 2012, up 13.5 per cent on the previous year.
Sri Lanka is clear which model it plans to emulate. “We want to be a family destination, like Singapore,” says Ravi Wijeratne, the head of Rank Holdings, the local company that will co-own the first planned property with Mr Packer. “We don’t want to be a new Macau or Vegas, no way.”
Family-friendly or not, it is a risky move, and one that will pay out only if the island can attract many more high-end tourists. This means in particular tempting visitors from neighbouring India – whose numerous high-rollers are frustrated by widespread gambling bans – as well as from China and Europe.
The operator of John Keels’ casino is yet to be announced, but one person with direct knowledge of the matter says it is set to be run by another leading international gaming group. “All of the big players are interested, and talks are happening,” the person says.
Some analysts say Hong Kong-based gaming mogul Stanley Ho is also considering investment options on the island, while others reckon the government will eventually give permission for more mega-casinos – potentially creating one of the largest gaming clusters in Asia. Beyond the two existing facilities, there may be “another couple more, not more than that”, says Mr Wijeratne.
Others believe Sri Lanka’s plans are bolder still – and are worried.
“My fear is that government basically wants Sri Lanka to become a sort-of Macau for India,” says Harsha Da Silva, an economist and parliamentarian for the nation’s main opposition party. “And if people like Stanley Ho or the American gambling groups do come here, we will be looking at five or six huge casinos in the next few years in Colombo . . . and can we really attract enough people to fill them all? I doubt it.”
Mr Rajapaksa’s government is coy about any such grand plans. In part this is because it fears public opposition in the Buddhist-majority island, whose influential monks take a dim view of sinful pastimes. There have been other spats too, with critics like Mr Da Silva claiming Mr Packer has won overly generous tax concessions.
Officially, the government says it is not actually giving permission for any new casinos at all. Instead, the island’s existing half-dozen or so seedy gambling joints will have to transfer their licences to the new, more glamorous projects.
Yet the two initial projects look set to go ahead, representing a big roll of the dice for Sri Lanka’s postwar economy – especially since it has so far failed to attract much foreign direct investment, given investor concerns about the creeping authoritarianism of Mr Rajapaksa’s family-dominated government.
For the casino companies themselves, the gamble is just as big, not least because Sri Lanka is not alone in its courtship of global gaming groups.
“The Philippines are already coming up with big properties, Vietnam and Cambodia are coming up too,” says Mr Wijeratne. “Even now we are having to upgrade our plans a little. We originally planned for a $350m investment, but we will at the end of the day be more like $400m. We have to compete.”