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Lure of tourism ends Singapore casino ban
By Wayne Arnold
The New York Times
Singapore said on Monday that it would legalize casinos to allow the construction of two Las Vegas-style resorts, overruling public opposition in an effort to promote tourism.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told Parliament that the cabinet had decided to lift the city-state's ban on casino gambling, ending a year of uncharacteristically vigorous public debate in a country that has been governed by the same party since 1965.
Singapore plans to award licenses this year to build the two casinos. It estimates that this will translate into roughly $3 billion in investment.
The hope is that introducing casinos will let Singapore fend off increasing competition for tourists from mainland China. China is one of the largest and fastest-growing sources of tourist arrivals in Singapore, but competition is mounting, particularly from Thailand.
More broadly, however, the casinos are part of a longstanding effort to reorient the economy in Singapore toward higher "value-added" service industries like tourism and biosciences as it loses manufacturing competitiveness to China.
There is no shortage of investors willing to share in the new wager by Singapore. Nineteen gaming consortia, including Harrah's Entertainment, MGM Mirage and Las Vegas Sands, responded to a government request for plans.
International casino operators are eager to expand in Asia, where rising incomes are letting billions of people spend more than ever on wagering. Harrah's, owner of Caesars, has enlisted the architect Daniel Libeskind, who designed the Freedom Tower that is to stand on the site of the World Trade Center in New York City, to design one of its proposed resorts.
Singapore business leaders praised the move to lift the ban.
"The government is prepared to give these folks the ability to invest their money and create tourism attractions that will get Singapore tourism back on track," said Philip Overmyer, executive director of the Singapore International Chamber of Commerce.
Tourism accounts for at least 5 percent of the economy in Singapore, a number that economists say understates the importance of the industry to the part of its economy that is not involved with foreign trade.
Despite its long and colorful history as a regional trading center, Singapore is short on conventional tourist sites like ancient temples or historic quarters. Many of its most colorful ethnic neighborhoods were nearly depopulated after Singapore became independent in the 1960s as part of a "slum clearance" program and stand today only as drab restorations.
Singapore has succeeded in turning itself into a regional hub for air travel, but tourists are spending less time on average in Singapore, using it instead as a staging ground for forays around Southeast Asia.
"They feel they have to act to give people a reason to stop here or stay a little bit longer," said David Cohen, director of Asian economic forecasting at Action Economics in Singapore.
The government plans to have two separate casino resorts, one on an underused theme park island off the southern coast.
The second resort will be near the main convention center, an area bristling with business hotels and near the distinctive Esplanade performing arts center that Singapore built in 2002 in a bid to become a cultural hub.
Harrah's is bidding to build both sites as part of a venture with a local government-controlled company, Keppel. Other bidders are Kerzner International, Wynn Resorts and the Australian casino operator Tabcorp Holdings.
Economist said the casino was likely to bring direct, tangible results. A report by Merrill Lynch estimated that a single casino would cost roughly $2 billion to build and would generate about $2.1 billion a year in revenue, about a third of it from foreign tourists. The project would help the construction and tourism industries, it predicted, including shops and hotels. It would contribute $865,000 a year to government tax revenue.
Singaporeans are no strangers to gambling. The government runs a national lottery as well as off-track betting on horse racing. Widespread illegal gambling on soccer matches prompted the government in 1999 to get into that business as well.