COOK ISLANDS: WHEN IS A HILTON NOT A HILTON?

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AUCKLAND, New Zealand (July 30, 2000 – Cook Islands Star)---When is a Hilton not a Hilton? When it is a Hilton International and in turn owned by Ladbrokes, the UK's giant gambling and casino group. The latest government back home to take over the Vaimaanga resort is patting itself on the back for enticing Tahiti's Revel family to buy the white elephant. Now, Cook Islanders are left to wonder who knew the truth when the "Hilton" deal was signed. Revel is the buyer, "Hilton" is the operator, but it's not the Hilton most people associate with that name. Say the name Hilton and most anyone assumes you are talking about the first class hotel chain founded in the United States - Hilton Hotels Corporation. Say the name Hilton International and again most everyone will assume you are talking about the same company, only talking about its offshore hotels. Well, it ain't so. Two totally separate companies, one based in America the other in UK, one a hotel company, the other a gambling and casino giant with the 'rights to the Hilton name' outside the USA.

But how can it be? Surely the original Hilton from USA would not for a minute let someone else use their name? How did it happen? Hilton Hotels Corporation was founded in the United States. Like many hotel chains from that country, Hilton set up a separate company, Hilton International, to operate offshore. No doubt there are a raft of reasons why American companies have a separate offshore entity for properties not on home soil.

In 1964 the companies were totally separate entities. In 1987 the "Hilton Group" (being Ladbrokes) bought Hilton International, and thus acquired the rights to the Hilton name outside the USA. In 1997 Hilton Hotels Corporation (USA) signed an agreement with Hilton International (Ladbrokes) to cooperate on sales and marketing, central reservations, that kind of stuff.

But the two companies remain absolutely separate and Hilton International is the arm of Ladbrokes that buys, builds, owns and manages hotels, some would say for the purpose of having places to put casinos. Ladbrokes' main source of income comes from what they call 'gaming' but the rest of us call gambling.

Ladbrokes calls itself, "one of the world's largest commercial off-track betting organizations and operations in UK, Ireland, Belgium, the Middle East, USA and Latin America. Some 2,500 "betting shops" as the corporate literature describes it. Big time bookmakers in other words. That's for the small punters.

For the high rollers, Ladbrokes Casinos is the "second largest casino operator in the UK," not to mention casinos spread across the world. But all anyone seems to have heard so far from the media and politicians back home is Hilton or Hilton Group. No one has apparently used the words Hilton International and certainly 'Ladbrokes' has yet to be spoken. At least not in public.

CASINO, WHAT CASINO?

Going back a decade, to the time just before the bulldozers started filling in the swamp that now houses the unfinished hotel on Rarotonga, politicians and developers have been pussy footing around the question of a casino being installed on the property.

First they deny any such plan exists, then they backtrack and say it will be for "tourists only," then the idea goes under cover again. In the latest "Hilton" scenario, it is again "only a proposal" and again, "only for tourists." Cook Islanders long ago stopped being fooled by the "only a proposal" number. To many locals that statement simply means, "There is going to be a casino but it's not yet official because we haven't yet figured out how to put it past the community." And as for "only for tourists," that gets an even bigger laugh.

Cook Islanders have many talents, but law enforcement is not up there on the top of the list say some. One person in government told CIStar, "Speeding traffic, unlicensed car chasing dogs, violators of the foreshore, the list could go on for pages. We are good at making laws but pretty stink at enforcing them".

Just last week on Rarotonga those watching local news on television were treated to the Revel lawyer explaining that the casino would only be installed at the hotel with Pa Ariki's permission. And that Pa would only give permission if "her people" were all behind it. He then spent five minutes explaining in which room the casino was going and treating viewers to a lot of details. Already worked out details, that is. In other words, a done deal, that's how many viewers saw the report.

And just for good measure, Revel's man explained how it will be "just for tourists."

SORRY, WHITES ONLY

That prompted another local comment. "Sure, tell us about it. Our Prime Minister is entertaining the Head of State of another nation. The boys go out on the town and call in at the Ladbrokes Casino. A big burly island boy at the door steps in front of the Prime Minister and says, 'The white guy can go in but not you Mr. Prime Minister.’"

The "not for locals" scenario is a real sticky one for Cook Islands. What happens when Mum pops over from Otara and wants to play the slots? Can she go in? Will the bouncers challenge anyone with brown skin at the door? The results could make recent events in Fiji seem like a rehearsal.

And what is the record of the casino and gambling industry in enforcing "not for locals" at other casinos? Not so good if CIStar's research so for is typical. The rules are more than likely ignored or so shoddily enforced as to be meaningless it would appear. While there are cases where the rules are the rules, they appear to be in the minority.

For additional reports from the Cook Islands Star, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/Cook Islands Star.

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