US giant Sands unveils plans for US$1.8b Macau casino complex - Saturday 12th of March 2005

MACAU: American gaming giant Las Vegas Sands unveiled plans Friday for a US$1.8b casino complex that will set Asian gambling haven Macau on the road to becoming the world's biggest casino attraction.

Sands lifted the covers off details of its Macau Venetian resort, an almost identical replica of its famous namesake hotel and casino in Las Vegas.

The US firm is among half a dozen or so major hotel groups that have signed on to open properties on the Cotai Strip, a 100,000-square-metre (1,076,000-square-foot) offshore reclamation site that has already been dubbed the Las Vegas Strip of Asia.

Among the international groups that have committed to building similarly sized casino-hotels are Hilton, Marriott, Starwood -- which owns the Sheraton and W brands, as well as the InterContinental, Regal, Four Seasons and Dorsett.

Announcing the ground-breaking of the first phase of its Cotai project -- which will see some 21,000 of an eventual 60,000 hotel rooms opened, Sands chairman Sheldon Adelson said Macau would be "Asia's new Las Vegas".

"I saw it in a dream, it could happen and it is happening," he said at a glitzy launch in the Sands Macau, the company's downtown flagship casino and the first foreign-owned gaming hall to open since the southern Chinese enclave relaxed casino ownership rules three years ago.

When the Cotai Strip is completed in seven to 10 years' time, said Adelson, it will boast an 18,000-seat arena and a 2,000-seat theatre.

He said total investment would be about 12-15 billion US dollars and it would help boost visitors to the former Portuguese territory to 40 million from the 17 million mostly mainland China tourists who visited last year.

"Mainland China can give us an unlimited number of people," Adelson said.

President and chief operating officer Bill Weidner said the company had approached government officials in China for permission to spill part of the complex onto nearby Heng Chin island where outdoor facilities such as a golf course could be constructed.

Sands, the largest casino operator in Las Vegas, has spearheaded a revolution in Macau's once ailing gambling industry.

The opening of Sands Macau in May last year brought American-style glitz and pizzazz to an industry formerly marked by seedy and smoky crime-ridden gambling dens.

Coinciding with a huge spike in tourists from mainland Chinese, Sands helped transform the once-sleepy enclave, long Asia's premier gaming haven, and produce double-digit economic growth.

Income from the city's dozen or so casinos is expected this year to eclipse the seven billion US dollars earned by Las Vegas last year. Tax income from gambling is so high that personal income tax has all but been eradicated.

Success has come at a cost. Tiny Macau, with a workforce of just 250,000, is already feeling a labour crunch as the mushrooming casinos drain the labour pool.

Weidner said his company had been approached by the Beijing-appointed government of the territory and asked to ensure development remained in pace with demographic growth.

"We have been asked to take it one step at a time so that the labour market responds correctly so that the fabric of society can adjust," he said. - AFP

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