It’s increasingly likely that US$1 billion or more in resort casino plans will go by the boards in Sri Lanka unless they somehow can pass muster as investments that conform with the island nation’s religious and cultural values.
The victory of Mithripala Sirisena in this month’s presidential election is widely expected to spell doom for the controversial gaming investments supported by his predecessor, Mahinda Rajapaksa, whom voters rejected for an unprecedented third term.
Australian casino giant Crown Resorts has spent the last two years lobbying for approval for a US$400 million casino and supporting hotel targeting the country’s burgeoning market of visitors from India. Crown Colombo, as it’s called, would be built in the heart of the capital’s Beira Lake tourist district. An even larger resort proposed nearby by local resort conglomerate John Keells, the country’s largest listed company, is also in jeopardy. A similarly uncertain fate awaits a $350 million resort proposed by Dhammika Perera, Sri Lanka’s richest man and owner of three of the country’s four officially recognized foreigners-only casinos.
Mr Sirisena, who quit as health minister to run for president in the 8th January election, won with a platform designed in large part to appeal to the island’s influential Buddhist community, whose religious leaders were always skeptical of Mr Rajapaksa’s vision of casinos as economic development tools capable of boosting tourism and attracting foreign investment in new hotel construction.
In his election manifesto backed by the opposition United National Party, Mr Sirisena vowed to rescind the 10-year moratorium on corporate income tax that Mr Rajapaksa wrangled for the Crown and Keells projects.
More recently, the new Investments minister, Kabir Hashim, has said all three projects will be reviewed in light of the country’s cultural and religious values.
“People came here to look at our rich culture,” he said, not as an entertainment destination. “We don’t believe that Sri Lanka should be marketed in that way,” he added. “These investments would be looked at very carefully. If there are investments that are not in line with Sri Lanka’s religious beliefs and culture —even if it means they are huge in terms of money—we will not be able to consider them.”