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Cust - Tuesday 12th of April 2005

Singapore's announcement on Monday that it will build two casino resorts worth about US$3 billion (1.57 billion pounds) combined has the city aflutter with talk of which gaming companies will come up with the most dazzling plans.

The 19 proposals from the world's top casino operators will be whittled down to a shortlist ahead of the December decision on which two will develop the projects at the city-state's downtown Marina Bay and its Sentosa resort island.

Eight of the bidders are widely seen to have the best odds to build what U.S. investment bank Merrill Lynch says could be the world's most expensive casinos.

Las Vegas Sands Corp., Wynn Resorts Ltd., MGM Mirage, Harrah's Entertainment Inc., Kerzner International Ltd., Eight Wonder, TabCorp Holdings and Genting Bhd. have emerged as top contenders to develop the projects.

The government's insistence that the two resorts offer wholesome family entertainment -- a sop to critics worried about the social implications of legalised casinos -- may favour bidders that can come up with popular attractions, analysts said.

Malaysia's Genting and its partner Star Cruises Ltd. have roped in Universal Studios, the theme parks and entertainment giant behind movie franchises such as "The Mummy" and "Jurassic Park".

"They have linked themselves with a strong partner and this certainly tips the odds in their favour," said Christopher Khoo, managing director of tourism consultancy MasterConsult Services.

LOCAL LINK

Analysts said two U.S. gaming operators working with Singapore state-linked bidders -- Harrah's with Keppel Land Ltd. and MGM with CapitaLand Ltd. -- also stand a higher chance of being picked by a government keen to ensure control over the casinos.

"The government will most likely not give away a very profitable license without local beneficiaries," wrote DBS Vickers Securities analysts Timothy Wong and Kok Ken-ji in a recent research note.

Keppel Land, a unit of state-owned Keppel Corp. Ltd., and Harrah's, which is vying with MGM to be the world's largest casino operator, have secured architect Daniel Libeskind, who designed the "Freedom Tower" at New York's Ground Zero.

Meanwhile, 62 percent government-owned CapitaLand is working separately with gaming heavyweights MGM and Kerzner to bid for the projects, which are expected to open in 2009.

MGM runs major Las Vegas casinos such as the Bellagio and Luxor while Kerzner operates the world's most expensive hotel rooms at the Atlantis resort in the Bahamas.

They are up against formidable competition from the likes of Las Vegas Sands, which has promised to incorporate a Guggenheim Museum into its resort, and industry visionary Steve Wynn.

Besides theme parks and museums, bidders are also drawing up plans for shopping plazas, convention halls and luxury hotels to meet government regulations that limit gaming revenues to 50 percent of turnover.

CREATIVE

"I can't think of another gaming jurisdiction in the world with such a rule. The winning groups have to be creative enough to come up with other sources of revenues and I think the Las Vegas players have a good sense of that," said Harrah's senior vice-president for business development, Richard Mirman.

While most Las Vegas casinos generate about half of their earnings from gambling, Kerzner's Atlantis resort earns three-quarters of its revenues from non-gaming sources such as its restaurants and hotel rooms.

Keen to placate concerns that the casinos will lead to higher rates of crime and gambling addiction, each bidder's record of corporate integrity and social responsibility will also be deciding factors, said Jonathan Galaviz, a casino gaming and airlines consultant.

"The government will choose the companies that represent the best of the industry and these are likely to be the large-scale operators and globally recognised names," he added.

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