MACAU WELCOMES ITS 34TH CASINO: SJM'S OCEANUS

Stanley Ho opened Macau’s 34th casino last month, the SJM Oceanus at Jai Alai.

The casino, the 21st operated by Ho’s Sociedade do Jogos de Macao, features more than 250 table games and 550 slot machines on 32,000 square meters of space on three floors, plus an array of food and beverage outlets and retail shops.

Designed by Las Vegas-based architect Paul Steelman, well-known for his work in the casino industry, the facility looks similar on the outside to the Water Cube national aquatic center in Beijing, which was used in the 2008 Olympic Games. As described by Macau Business magazine, the interior is enveloped in sea-themed colors while the outer walls are constructed of irregular shapes that give the impression the building is enveloped in multicolored bubbles.

SJM Chief Executive Ambrose So told the magazine the casino will be the first within easy reach of the ferry terminal and will provide “another anchor to our business on the Macau peninsula, the principal gaming and entertainment area of Macau.”

LVS SECURES FUNDS TO RESTART COTAI

Las Vegas Sands subsidiary Sands China says it has the financing to complete the first two phases of the company’s largest resort on the Cotai Strip in Macau - a complex of 6,000 hotel rooms under the Shangri-La, Traders and Sheraton brands.

The company says it has US$1.75 billion in commitments and will kick in $500 million of its own money from the $2.5 billion it raised several weeks ago in its initial public offering on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.

“Our ability to add more properties to the Cotai Strip will enhance visitation from all parts of the Asia-Pacific region and significantly increase the overall length-of-stay in Macau,” said Sheldon Adelson, chairman and CEO of Las Vegas-based LVS.

Construction of the 13.3 million-square-foot complex was halted a year ago when the global financial crisis hit and LVS found itself overburdened with debt.

The project is 65 percent complete, the company said, and construction will restart in two phases. The first phase is expected to open in June 2011 with 3,700 rooms and suites, a theater and retail, gaming and convention facilities. The second phase, planned for December 2011, will feature a 2,300-room Sheraton hotel and a complement of non-gaming amenities.

Timing for completion of a third phase, which is to include a St. Regis hotel and residences, has yet to be determined.

CAMBODIA DISPUTE SENDS THAI PLAYERS TO CASINOS IN LAOS

The decay in relations between Thailand and Cambodia has increasing numbers of Thai gamblers shunning the latter’s border casinos for those of Laos.

It is not clear whether Thais have spurned Cambodia’s casinos out of nationalist sentiment alone or out of concern that the two countries may suddenly close their shared borders. Whatever the reason, trade is brisk along the route from Thailand to the Laotian casinos, according to a recent report in Thai business daily The Nation.

An inspector at an immigration checkpoint in Mukdahan told the newspaper that the number of Thais going to Laos had increased 20 to 30 percent in recent weeks.

“But I can’t say whether they are gamblers changing their destination,” he said. “The peak season for tourism has started. It’s possible that the increase comes from holidaymakers.”

According to another source cited by the newspaper, the number of Thai gamblers going past the Chongchom checkpoint to Cambodia was clearly down.

“On a holiday at least 4,000 Thais used to visit the casinos on the other side. But now the number is down to no more than 1, 000,” he said.

MOMENTUM BUILDS FOR MORE LIMITS ON AUSTRALIA'S POKIES

An Australian lawmaker has called for formation of an independent national body to monitor the country’s gambling laws and measure the effectiveness of programs designed to combat problem gambling.

Taking aim at the country’s popular gambling machines, or “pokies,” as they’re called, Senator Nick Xenophon, a member of Parliament from South Australia and an outspoken gambling opponent, issued his recommendations at a recent public hearing in Sydney held by the Productivity Commission.

The commission, which is conducting an inquiry into gambling, has issued a draft report calling for tougher regulations on pokies and online gambling. Recommendations include reducing the maximum poker machine bet from $10 to $1, with a $20 maximum on any one machine by a player, and a $200 ATM withdrawal limit on cash machines located nearby.

Xenophon, meanwhile, has characterized problem gambling as a nationwide epidemic with too many regulatory and prescriptive inconsistencies. He contends also that programs created to deal with the problem are woefully underfunded.

“I just don’t think we have a national approach, and I think that there ought to be a national body to look at this and to drive the agenda in a constructive way,” he said in a report published by the Sydney Morning Herald.

In his home state of South Australia, he said, less than 1 percent of pokie revenue goes to the state’s Gamblers’ Rehabilitation Fund, and just over 1 percent goes to a similar fund in New South Wales.

He also has called for a “victims of crime compensation fund,” saying crimes by problem gamblers directly affect family members and often go unreported.

The Productivity Commission is expected to produce a final report in early 2011 and wants restrictions in place by 2016.

A new market for a new year - medical tourists

Government-owned Grand Korea Leisure, the market share leader among South Korea’s foreigners-only casinos, sees a lucrative new business for its gambling venues in medical tourists from China.

An expected 70,000 people will visit South Korea for medical reasons this year, a spike of 40 percent over 2009. The reason for the huge expected increase is that South Korea is currently negotiating a visa waiver program with China, which is also where most of Grand Korea’s clientele come from. The waiver program is intended to boost tourism, but Grand Korea sees it as a potential source of new clients.

Grand Korea’s three casinos entertained 100 million visitors last year, and the company hopes to increase that number to 120 million this year, and reap a 10 percent increase in profits (to US$96 million) in the process. But it will have to do it by growing revenues at existing facilities. South Korea’s gambling laws are strict when it comes to casino licensing, and the government has no intention of handing out any more licenses than have already been granted.

Significantly, Grand Korea is also in the process of being privatized, like many state-owned companies in the country. The government intends to sell 49 percent of the operator this year, with the possibility of additional stake sales occurring in 2012.

And, as is obvious, if the company meets its projected financial goals, a public offering will have much greater appeal for investors.