Inside Asian Gaming

INSIDE ASIAN GAMING | June 2008 14 White sand and pristine waters offer a potent complement to casino gaming, but few places on earth provide it. There is Atlantis in the Bahamas, but no equivalent in Asia. Thailand is still deliberating whether to permit gaming in some of its beach resorts and developers in the Philippines have twice proposed casinos along the popular Boracay shorefront,only tobe stymiedby theCatholic Diocese of Kalibo on both occasions. Sun seekers with a penchant for gambling will soon have somewhere to go in Asia, following the Vietnam government’s recent approval of a gaming strip on a resort location not far from Ho Chi Minh City. Asian Coast Development Ltd. (ACDL), a Canadian company, is leading the project to build Vietnam’s largest tourism initiative: The Ho Tram Strip. The proposed US$4.2 billion destination resort will be located along the white, sandy shores of Ho Tram in the province of Ba Ria-Vung Tau, some 130 kilometers (80 miles) south of Ho Chi Minh City. The resort will feature 9,000 guest rooms in five luxurious 5-star properties, Las Vegas-style casino facilities, and a Greg Norman championship golf course. The 169-hectare development will also include retail shopping, a 1,000-seat live entertainment venue, a full-service spa, and convention facilities with capacity for up to 8,000 people. Phase I of the project, which broke ground in a ceremony last month,will see the completion of the first 1,100-room hotel and golf course in 2010. Phase II, slated to open in the spring of 2011, includes the second hotel with an additional 1,300 rooms,the first casino, and 10 restaurants and nightclubs. The casino will have an 8,300-square meter (90,000 square feet) gaming floor and will house 1,000 slot machines and 90 gaming tables. Meanwhile the entire Ho Tram Strip should be operational within a decade. The Ho Tram Strip will have an environmental preservation and conservation theme, highlighting the lush natural beauty of the area while showcasing Vietnamese and Asian culture. Macau fallout? There is much speculation as to how major developments in Vietnam, Singapore, and elsewhere in Asia will affect the bottom lines of existing casinos across the region. There is clear consensus that Macau will remain the top gaming destination in terms of visitor numbers and gaming revenue for the foreseeable future. However, developments like the Ho Tram Strip will clearly take away from Macau’s previously unrivalled allure. The lead architect of the Ho Tram project is renowned casino and resort designer Paul Steelman, who previously discussed the prospects of a beachside gaming destination in Vietnam with Inside Asian Gaming . Mr Steelman says Ho Tram offers visitors “a multiplicity of experience”, which neither Macau nor Singapore can replicate. Mr. Steelman highlights four popular travel categories to make his point. “You’ve got a city vacation like going to Madrid. You’ve got an entertainment vacation like coming here [toMacau]. You’ve got a beach vacation, which a lot of people like—beach, the water, rivers, lakes, that type of thing. And you’ve got the adventure vacation—you go rock climbing,Machu Picchu,or something of this nature.” The Ho Tram Strip offers all except the city experience, and ACDL is betting that there is an untapped market of punters wishing to combine fun in the sun with time at the tables. Mr. Steelman acknowledges that the Ho Tram Strip’s picturesque location overlooking the South China Seas (Eastern Sea in Vietnamese vernacular) comes with its drawbacks as well. He points to the casinos in the Bahamas, where “at night it’s jammed, but at 10 in the morning, there won’t be anybody in the casino.” His task will be to meld the indoors with the outdoors to facilitate seamless transition between beach and baccarat. Demand drivers The resort’s developers are encouraged by the rising number of visitors coming to Vietnam. In 2008, the New York Times identified Vietnam as one of 53 “hot-spot” tourist destinations and theWorld Travel and Tourism Council raised Vietnam from sixth place to fourth in its ranking of the world’s fastest-growing travel destinations. In 2007, Vietnam saw a 16% rise in foreign visitors, welcoming 4.2 million tourists across its borders. The trend for Q1 suggests this year’s tourism growth will match that of last year. Vietnamese nationals are currently prohibited from gambling at the few casinos already located in the country. However, there is speculation that in the coming years the government may consider overturning this restriction. This would considerably boost the prospects of The Ho Tram Strip, given the considerable pent-up demand for casino gaming among locals. Vietnam’s population tops 86 million and nearby Ho Chi Minh’s metropolitan population is estimated at close to 10million. The population is also becoming more prosperous, with the country’s economy growing at more than 7% per annum for the past decade. Vietnamese enjoy gambling as much as other newly wealthy Asians, as evidenced by the thriving gaming industry in Bavet, a gaming town in Cambodia just across the border from Vietnam, intended primarily to cater to Vietnamese players. If Vietnamese are allowed to gamble at home, however, Bavet’s fortunes could take a tumble. Blue Skies and Baccarat Asia’s next big gaming strip is being built on a long stretch of unspoiled beachfront in Vietnam, offering a laid-back alternative to the congested bustle of Macau, writes R. Anders West Feature