Vietnam’s first casino permitting local play is a world class resort in a burgeoning luxury destination.
These virus smitten days, there could hardly be a worse name for a property than Corona. Beyond that bit of bad luck, though, the nation’s first casino resort with a gaming floor open to Vietnamese shows a healthy long term prognosis.
Opened in January last year, Corona Resort and Casino is part of a hospitality boom on Phú Quốc, a 574 square kilometer island shaped like a seahorse, known for pearls and peppercorns, surrounded by clear turquoise water off Vietnam’s west coast. Vietnam’s government has promoted development in Phú Quốc with tax and land rent breaks for investors, policy changes and infrastructure improvements, including a new international airport earmarked for expansion. Local and international luxury hotel brands are pouring into the market, supplementing Phú Quốc’s small resorts and backpacker accommodations.
“Millions of dollars are being spent on the island, invested for growth in tourism,” Corona Casino General Manager Goran Milosheski says. “The only way is up.”
Corona particularly benefits from two policy changes. In 2014, the government initiated visa-free entry to Phú Quốc – but not the rest of Vietnam – for foreigners with a 30-day stay (that same year, Phú Quốc was connected to Vietnam’s national electric power grid). In January 2017, the government eased rules to allow Vietnamese to play in designated casinos.
The government selected two casinos for the local play pilot program, Corona and a resort in Van Don in the country’s north that’s yet to open. The pilot program runs for three years from the opening of the first authorized casino.
“The domestic market potential is huge,” Euro Pacific Asia Managing Partner Shaun McCamley says. Vietnam’s population is approaching 100 million and last year economic growth touched 7%.
“A large population base with plenty of cash and a propensity to gamble means happy days for any casino operator – but will it ever open up [beyond the pilot program]?” McCamley, who once ran Vietnam’s first beachfront casino at Ho Tram, observes. “Time will tell, but my personal feeling is it is not going to happen any time soon. Gambling is still a very contentious subject with some senior members of the Politburo.”
He believes government officials “want the business to just slowly and quietly tick along during the three year trial period, after which making any decisions moving forward or not will allow for more options.”
Under the pilot program, Vietnamese citizens able to show monthly income of VND10 million (US$431) for the past three months (proof of income must be updated every three months) and are over the age of 21 can play in designated casinos, after paying an entry tax of VND1 million per 24 hours. Foreign players must provide their passport only, don’t need to prove income and don’t pay an entry fee. All registrants receive a card that they must present to enter the casino and again to play at tables and machines.
“It’s 100% carded play due to government regulations and 100% trackable,” Milosheski says.
Corona set the pilot program clock running on 19 January 2019. Privately held, Vietnamese owned Phú Quốc Tourism Development and Investment Company (PQTDIC) built Corona as part of a cluster that includes six more beachfront hotels under the Vinpearl brand with more than 4,000 rooms and 500 villas, a golf course, family entertainment, and a medical center in partnership with Vietnam’s Vingroup … and it’s not done yet. Vinwonder amusement park is due to open in April, complementing Vietnam’s largest safari park and a water park.
Slated for occupancy in October, Grand World will lift PQTDIC’s investment above the US$2 billion threshold Vietnam requires for all casino resorts. Using a shophouse layout popular on Phú Quốc, Grand World mixes retail and commercial space, mini-hotels and residential units including condos and villas, spread over 85.3 hectares (211 acres) with plenty of room for expansion.
Set on Bai Dai (Long Beach) about 30 kilometers (18 miles) north of the airport, Corona has five-star Radisson Blu and four-star Vinoasis hotels totaling more than 1,500 rooms plus 10 villas. The complex includes Almaz, a retail and restaurant strip, a 500 seat theater and 18,000 square meter (193,750 square foot) convention center.
“BRIGHT, HAPPY SPACE”
At Corona’s center, the casino, designed by Paul Steelman, showcases “modern Vietnam” and the beach location. The main floor displays brilliant reds, yellows and oranges representing “the direct sun of Phú Quốc beach,” the Steelman Partners CEO says, to create “a bright, happy space.” Corona was nominated at last May’s G2E Asia Awards in the Best Gaming Floor and Best Regional Integrated Resort categories.
Upffinity Gaming Management, based in the Netherlands, operates the casino for PQTDIC. Like its project partner Vingroup and Phú Quốc hospitality rival Sun Group, PQTDIC was founded by Vietnamese expatriates living in the former Soviet Union, a staunch Cold War ally of Vietnam. Milosheski, who doubles as Upffinity’s COO, worked in Russian casinos and speaks to PQTDIC leadership in Russian.
Corona’s 18,800 square meter gaming area has government authorization for 100 tables and 1,000 slot machines based on project investment. The mass floor has 30 tables denominated in dong. Baccarat has the most tables, with minimum bets starting at VND1 million (US$43) and maxing out at VND200 million (US$8,600).
Blackjack and casino poker variants play for VND200,000 (US$9) and up. Roulette, with bets ranging from VND50,000 to VND1 million on 35:1 plays, with larger bets on lower odds plays, and sic bo are popular. Corona is considering adding niu-niu (also known as ngau ham), a favorite card game in Cambodian casinos.
“Still early days,” Corona’s Vice President of Gaming Operations Danie Van Vuuren says.
Corona has deployed just over half of its 1,000 allotted machines so far. The main floor also has a 125-seat multigame stadium – the tables count against the allocation, not the terminals – with a 16 meter by 4 meter screen comprised of 12 component screens that can show separate items or a single program. Electronic gaming machines are denominated in Corona dollars, dong minus three zeros; a 10 cent unit equals VND10,000.
A bar with entertainment nightly and 24-hour noodle shop with Vietnam’s famous pho noodle soup are integrated into the main floor. Japanese and fusion restaurants, plus the Whiskey and Cigar Bar with dark walls and a marble fireplace, provide more formal refreshment options.
High limit and VIP areas off the main floor have games denominated in Hong Kong and US dollars, rather than dong.
“Otherwise the numbers get too big,” Milosheski says. Most rooms have four tables and can be split into separate spaces with two tables. There’s also a VVIP space with its own separate entrance, four tables and its own cage.
RED LIGHT DISTRICT
Above the main gaming floor, there’s a mezzanine area for junket play and a small night club called Red Light. This upper level VIP area can be entered directly from the Vinoasis hotel. “Very private,” Milosheski says. The top floor of the Radisson Blu houses a sky casino. Reached by private elevator, this VIP area has a main floor with four baccarat and two roulette tables plus 15 private gaming rooms, with panoramic views of the sea from eight stories up. Guest suites are available on floor to customers that roll US$1 million.
Players can join Corona’s rolling program with as little as the equivalent of US$2,000. Junkets receive rebates around 1.2%. The majority of junkets are from Vietnam. Overall, estimates peg Corona’s 2019 gross gaming revenue north of US$70 million, with Vietnamese play accounting for 90% of it.
“There are monetary advantages for locals to gamble in their home country as the challenge for moving money internationally does not exist,” Global Market Advisors Managing Partner Steve Gallaway says.
Corona says it was registering 3,000 to 4,000 new Vietnamese players monthly before the virus gutted travel. These players are not the Vietnamese riding buses over the border into Cambodia to play in the dingy casinos of Bavet. Corona executives consider their competition to be the Philippines, Singapore, Macau and NagaWorld in Phnom Penh. Players from across Vietnam can fly to Phú Quốc more frequently, easily and cheaply than to those other destinations. There are also ferries from two Vietnamese ports.
However, it would be wrong to see Corona as strictly a domestic gaming play. There are direct flights from 10 international destinations, including four mainland Chinese cities, Hong Kong, Taipei and Seoul, plus seasonal charters from Russia.
Corona’s casino visit records show that, while Vietnamese constituted a majority in the early months, overseas visitors overtook them last July. For the full 2019, Corona attracted 105,200 visitors, about 300 daily, with foreigners 55% of the total.
“Junket operators have been sending players to Vietnam for many years, particularly to the Crown International property near Da Nang,” marketing expert Clay Peister, managing director of Differential Labs, a strategic partner of Global Market Advisors, says.
“While junket operators have often struggled in markets like Australia and even Korea, operators cite that Vietnam is an easier sell to their clients. Operators have confided that their players enjoy the whole trip experience in Vietnam and their RFB allowances go further than in other markets.”
Corona’s foreign visitor growth accelerated during the year, with foreigners 62% of the visitor total in December, the last month before the virus impacted travel. In that month, Koreans comprised 18% of the visitors, mainland China 12%, Malaysia 7% – Air Asia flies daily from Kuala Lumpur – and Russia 5%. Those groups are roughly indicative of Phú Quốc’s main foreign visitors, though not necessarily in those proportions.
Americans and Australians also rank among the top visitor groups to Phú Quốc, and the latter are in evidence on the Corona casino floor.
In addition to sun seekers, there’s a significant Korean expatriate population in Vietnam, many involved with manufacturing by Korean companies there. Those expats are a key market for slot clubs in five-star hotels in Vietnamese cities, and Corona counts those clubs as rivals for foreign players. Van Vuuren believes that Corona could succeed as a foreigner-only casino with a different business plan, though no one wants to test that theory.
The virus was slower to infect Corona’s business due to its reduced reliance on mainland Chinese players. However the resort hasn’t been immune to the overall slowdown in travel across Asia. Executives are confident that positive trends will resume once the virus threat dissipates. And they’re not concerned about any lasting impact from sharing the Corona name with the virus.
“Most of the jokes are about the beer,” Milosheski says.
Flock to Phú Quốc
Many industry observers believe Phú Quốc’s breakneck hospitality growth anticipates expansion of gaming on the island beyond Corona Resort. Whatever the motivation, recent development has produced some stunning resorts on Phú Quốc with more in the pipeline.
JW Marriott Phú Quốc Emerald Bay, opened in 2017, presents itself as Université Lamarck, a fictional French colonial campus named for actual French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829). Resort architect Bill Bensley’s design combines breathtaking detail, such as mementos of school athletic team triumphs and alumni keepsakes, ingenuity with the Department of Chemistry bar, and kitsch with entrances to the Entomologie Department cluster of guest rooms festooned with scientific drawings of insects and Astronomie depicting celestial bodies.
The mock university resort is one of some half-dozen Phú Quốc properties owned by Vietnam leisure developer Sun Group. Its portfolio includes the world’s largest sea crossing cable car system, completed in 2018, connecting to Sun World Hon Thom theme park.
InterContinental Phú Quốc Long Beach Resort debuted in 2018 and added new villas last year. Its Ink 360 bar presents panoramic views of the island’s mountains and sea, each protected as national parks. Phú Quốc is also designated a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve.
Both resorts are south of Phú Quốc International Airport and the island’s main town Duong Dong with a night market featuring local seafood. While authorities work to balance development with environmental protection, licenses have been granted to some 250 tourism projects with estimated investment of US$14 billion.
From 239,000 visitors in 2010, Phú Quốc surpassed 4 million arrivals in 2018; figures for 2019 were not available at press time. In January, the government announced plans to add a second runway to Phú Quốc International Airport, expanding capacity to 10 million passengers by 2030.