£350m gamble on Taiwans Vegas - Monday 28th of November 2005

THREE Scots businessmen and a Las Vegas gambling guru have revealed plans to build a £350m casino resort in a tropical paradise off the Taiwanese coast.

Former Magnum Power finance director Ian Irvin and Taiwan-based expat Tim Potter are behind Amazing Holdings, which has secured rights on a 27-acre plot of beachfront land in the Penghu islands.

The company intends to construct an upmarket hotel and entertainment complex that would attract high-rolling gambling tourists from Taiwan and mainland China - while also luring punters from Asias current casino mecca, Macau.

Irvin and Potter have brought fellow Scotsman David Mathewson, chairman of TV betting firm Sportech, on to the board as chairman.

They have also attracted Larry Woolf, a former chief executive of the MGM Grand hotel in Las Vegas - the largest betting complex in the world - to be its chief executive.

Amazing Holdings will reveal its intention to list on the Alternative Investment Market tomorrow morning. The group plans to raise around £3m to fund the development of the project, giving it a valuation of around £28m.

Irvin said: "Las Vegas for the Chinese at the moment is Macau, but thats not aimed at high-rollers.

"If you go to Vegas, youll find that the more refined establishments, with the more discerning clientele, are on the outskirts of the city, away from the strip.

"Its the atmosphere, and the clientele, of those out-of-town resorts that we are looking to emulate."

He added: "Its not a lot of money that were looking to raise at the moment, but Ive been pleasantly surprised at the level of interest in our pre-IPO marketing. We could have raised the funding privately in Taiwan, but we wanted to bring it to the market."

Although gambling is not yet legal in Taiwan, plans are being developed as part of a government strategy to create a tourism industry. Irvin stresses that he has no guarantees that new gambling laws will be introduced, but he believes the process will be in motion by the third quarter of next year.

The planned change in the gambling laws is part of a scheme by the Taiwanese authorities to build a tourist economy and diversify away from traditional manufacturing industries.

Macau, which is only a short ferry trip away from Hong Kong, has built a hugely successful gambling industry in the past decade and is expected to pay out more in winnings than Las Vegas within the next two to three years.

Singapore, renowned for its ultra-conservative policies, has now approved plans to legalise gambling in a limited form - giving the Taiwanese a further prompt to change the law.

There are currently 1.3 million Taiwanese travelling to Macau every year to use the casinos, while a total of 10 million go on foreign trips specifically to gamble. Thanks to the rise of the Chinese middle classes, tourism in Asia is also set to rocket over the next few years. The World Tourist Organisation estimates that 100 million Chinese will be looking for sunshine holidays by 2020.

The Penghu Islands lie just below the Tropic of Cancer in the Taiwan Strait, between Taiwan and mainland China.

Amazing is likely to be the first company to win a gambling licence from the Taiwanese authorities and plans to use the experience on its board to help the authorities draft the gambling legislation. Much of the £3m being raised will be diverted towards the groundwork for setting the legal change in motion.

Work on the first construction phase of the project will also begin next year. The development will open initially as an upmarket hotel and entertainment complex, attracting tourists to the picturesque islands simply as a holiday destination.

The purchase of the site is the biggest real estate deal ever done in Taiwan. When it joins the market, Amazing will be the first company listed in London with interests solely in Taiwan. Although still based in Edinburgh, Irvin has been dedicating his time to Taiwanese projects since leaving Livingston-based Magnum Power in 1996. Magnum Power hit troubles after Irvin and the other founders left. The company is now a cash shell called RAM Investments.

Potter has been in Taiwan for 25 years and regularly met Irvin when he was on trips to Taiwan with Magnum. The two have been working on the plans for the Penghu development since 1998. The initial plan was just to build a holiday resort but the project evolved in a casino development once signs emerged that the gambling stance was softening.

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