In this regular feature in IAG to celebrate 18 years covering the Asian gaming and leisure industry, we look back at our cover story from exactly 10 years ago, “Sri Lanka’s strong hand”, to rediscover what was making the news in October 2013!
Japan may well be the poster child when it comes to progressing casino and IR development at a snail’s pace, but it’s not the only jurisdiction taking its sweet time.
In the October 2013 edition of Inside Asian Gaming, we took a deep dive into the status of Sri Lanka’s burgeoning casino industry and moves by the government to turbo charge international tourism via the development of the nation’s first large-scale integrated resorts.
At the time, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa was touting a new era of economic prosperity, with tourism highlighted as the primary generator of foreign exchange earnings. As such, the development of world-class casinos as part of larger integrated resorts was seen as paramount in adding greater appeal to the island’s already abundant natural attractions.
In particular, Sri Lanka wanted to capitalize on the propensity of Indians – its largest source customer – to gamble, given the absence of legal casino gaming across most of India.
“I think the main thrust of the government is they see this as a potential revenue generator for them as well as a big driver for tourism into Sri Lanka, and a large part of that focus would be to get Indians to come across and gamble in the casinos because of the close proximity,” said Manav Thadani, then chairman of hospitality consultancy firm HVS, in comments to IAG at the time. “Right now, if you look at the tourist arrivals into Sri Lanka, Indians dominate that, and the thought process is that that number could go up significantly if they had casinos, because casinos are something which currently are prohibited in India.”
With this clear vision in mind, there were in 2013 already two projects in the pipeline. One of these was to be developed by James Packer’s Crown Resorts, with the Australian billionaire having pledged to develop a US$350 million IR called Crown Colombo, offering 400 luxury hotel rooms and a tentative completion date of 2016 – all in partnership with Sri Lanka’s casino mogul Ravi Wijeratne.
The other project, by local leisure giant John Keells Holdings, was to be even larger, comprising a five-star hotel with 800 rooms, a convention center, a shopping mall, entertainment facilities, luxury condominiums, serviced apartments and office space at a cost of US$650 million. It was, John Keells told its shareholders, to be iconic.
“It will aesthetically and functionally add to transforming the landscape of Colombo, potentially making it one of the most sought after destinations in South Asia,” the company explained.
In the end, the Crown Colombo development never transpired after the newly elected government in 2016 scrapped plans to provide tax concessions to encourage the foreign investment.
The John Keells project has come to fruition however, albeit slowly, in the form of Cinnamon Life – an integrated resort located in Colombo and due to open in 2024. In its 2023 annual report, John Keells said it has designated space at Cinnamon Life for a casino and is currently in discussions with international gaming firms to operate the casino, with fit out expected to take between 12 and 15 months from the time of reaching an agreement.”
Potentially allaying concerns that reputable western operators might be dissuaded by the country’s lack of a sufficient regulatory framework, the Sri Lankan Cabinet of Ministers approved in June the establishment of a Gambling Regulatory Authority, to be tasked with overseeing the industry, ensuring tax revenues are properly collected, and implementing rules around the prevention of illegal activities and minimization of gambling harm.
As the old saying goes, better late than never!