ASIAN GAMING EXPERT LUKEWARM ON SAIPAN CASINO

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Warns that major investors wary of limited airline access

By Haidee V. Eugenio SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, Aug. 9, 2011) – In the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), a Macau-based Asian gaming consultant told Gov. Benigno R. Fitial and several lawmakers yesterday that casino gambling would work on Saipan, but the island should not expect to draw major investors or the likes of casino magnate Steve Wynn because of existing challenges such as airline access to the island.

Ben Lee, managing partner of IGamiX Management & Consulting Ltd., said Saipan should start small if it wants a casino industry established, and the island should be ready to face stiff competition from Asian destinations with established casino industries such as Macau, Korea, Singapore, Cambodia, and the Philippines.

But Lee, who came to Saipan at the invitation of the governor, said that despite the competition, a casino industry is "what Saipan needs, I believe, to give tourism a much needed boost right now."

"Gaming in the region is now viewed as a game changer. So a lot of countries other than Saipan are looking at gaming to actually attract tourism," Lee said in an interview after his closed-door presentation for the governor and lawmakers on Capital Hill yesterday.

The presentation started at shortly past 10am and lasted until about 12:30pm.

Fitial asked lawmakers last week to listen to the casino consultant's presentation before acting on a local bill seeking to legalize casino gambling on Saipan.

Lee said his message to lawmakers is "to seriously consider permitting gambling in Saipan to get the tourism industry to where it should be."

He said a casino industry will "absolutely" benefit the local economy.

"You just have to look at Singapore, Macau as prime examples. Singapore has increased tourism by 20 percent. In Macau, it's unimaginable. Macau is now five times bigger than Las Vegas. In other countries-Cambodia, Vietnam-everybody's looking at gaming to drive tourism and if you don't have it you lose out in the race," Lee told reporters.

He said Saipan will not compete with big jurisdictions like Macau and Singapore.

"You need it [casino industry] because otherwise what's the outlook for Saipan? So I throw that question back at you. I've seen the tourism figure; it's declining year in, year end. What do you have to do to change that? Somebody else asked me the same question, 'can you think of something else that will change that trend?' No," he said.

Lee's IGamiX Management & Consulting Ltd. is a well-known Asian gaming consultancy based in Macau.

IGamiX has consulted on gaming projects all over Asia, from feasibility reports to greenfield start ups, for a variety of clients ranging from private companies to government bodies. Lee is also a regular speaker on the topic of Asian junket business at major international conferences.

When asked whether he's being hired by the CNMI government as a casino consultant, Lee said "not at this point in time."

Saipan voters twice rejected legalizing casino gambling on the island. Casino gambling is legal only on Tinian and Rota.

But Lee said "even countries that were previously vehemently opposed to gambling like Vietnam, Myanmar, and Singapore, [that] were steadfastly against gambling have changed their mind and look at the outcome," he added.

The Senate also rejected last year a bill legalizing casino gambling on Saipan.

Some senators said they are not opposed to casino gambling, but the decision whether to legalize it on Saipan should rest with Saipan voters.

Fitial and some lawmakers interviewed said the presentation was a reality check on what would work and what would not work on Saipan.

Lee and some lawmakers said it will be difficult to entice investors to invest US$25 million on Saipan, how much more a proposed US$575 million required investment for an exclusive casino license on island.

Rep. Stanley Torres (Ind-Saipan), author of a pending Saipan casino bill, said he will be revising his bill to "scale down" the investment requirements in his bill.

He said a US$5 million advance deposit, which could be used as tax credit, will be a good start.

Lawmakers also said the use of existing hotels with 300 rooms will not be an issue. There are only four existing hotels on Saipan with 300 or more rooms.

House floor leader George Camacho (Ind-Saipan) and Torres also said that Lee does not recommend having an exclusive casino license because it will stunt the growth of the industry. But he also said the number of investors should not be more than three.

"So it should be two or three investors," Camacho said.

Camacho said Lee's presentation was an interesting one.

He said he would also like to hear from prospective investors and proponents, after hearing from a casino gaming consultant.

"[Lee] said US$20 million is still too much. The CNMI is not a proven market yet. We're not going to get high-rollers at first," Camacho said, adding that even investors in established markets want to get their return on investment within three years.

Camacho said that, according to Lee, requiring 300 rooms for a casino will not be an issue, "but the amount of investment" needed.

He said a US$10 million investment requirement may be more enticing for an investor to come to Saipan.

Camacho said he has not decided yet whether to vote "yes" on a pending local casino bill, but he's not opposed to it.

"I am in favor of supporting revenue generation for the people. But if this [casino] is the best way, I don't know," he added.

Lee said the House leadership came up to him and asked him for his opinion on the proposed casino bill. He said it will be up to the Legislature to revise the pending local casino bill.

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