Mega-Casino Resort Project Reportedly ‘Still On The Table’ In Yap

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10,000 room Chinese-backed project ‘continues to divide … community’

By Lexi Villegas Zotomayor

SAIPAN, CNMI (Marianas Variety, June 5, 2014) – With all the talk about the controversy-riddled Saipan casino operation, a much larger casino is still looming in Micronesia.

A group of Chinese investors is still working on constructing the much-talked about mega casino project on the island of Yap.

A member of the Council of Pilung — composed of elders — confirmed to Variety that the proposal is still on the table.

Declining to reveal his identity, the member of the council said the proposal continues to divide their community.

"There is still a lot of talk about the casino. However, we still have the law in place against gambling here," he said.

The colossal casino project on Yap will be five times the size of the proposed casino on Saipan.

Even if the Northern Marianas government amends the Saipan casino law and allows the issuance of more than one casino license, the Yap proposal is still bigger than the Marianas Stars Entertainment and Best Sunshine integrated resorts combined.

The Yapese elder who refused to be identified in this report said it is not yet clear whether the law outlawing gambling will be amended to allow this mega casino project.

"It is still moving forward," he said referring to the ETG project.

ETG has had its share of controversies since it signed an agreement with Yap Governor Sebastian Anefal.

"ETG is working on their plan and are still in Yap," the elder told Variety underscoring the fact that there is still a law in place against gambling.

Meanwhile, the proposal that has been dividing the Yapese community was the main subject of an academic presentation by Dr. Donald Rubinstein, a University of Guam professor of anthropology and Micronesian Studies.

In his presentation for the Micronesian Area Research Center Occasional Seminar on May 8, Dr. Rubinstein explored how a mammoth casino proposal is dividing the Yapese community and provided conjectures on the bigger picture for Yap.

His presentation titled "Yap Paradise Island: A Chinese Company’s proposal for building a 10,000-room Mega-Resort Casino Complex," chronicled the three-year, ongoing casino proposal by Chengdu Century City New International Exhibition and Convention Center Company Ltd., better known as Exhibition and Travel Group or ETG.

On Saipan, the proposal is for a $2 billion, 2,000-room casino complex.

Gaming is illegal on Yap, in contrast to Saipan where a casino operation was recently approved.

Dr. Rubinstein said that ETG’s Paradise concept plan consisted of construction plans for an oceanfront resort complex including artificial offshore islands and bungalows built over the lagoon, golf courses, expanded airport and seaport facilities, "an immense water reservoir system" and native towns where displaced Yapese will be relocated.

He said the Yap casino architectural design was made by HHCP Architects based in Orlando, Florida — the same firm involved in the Palm Jumeirah project in Dubai, the world’s largest artificial island.

ETG has recently completed its New Century Global Center, which is three times larger than the Pentagon and is now considered the world’s largest building.

It was the governor of Yap that sealed an agreement with Deng Hong, ETG’s founder and one of China’s 300 wealthiest people, regarding the construction of a mega casino complex on Yap.

Their Strategic Framework Agreement, Dr. Rubinstein said, commits in writing a set of promises by ETG.

He said ETG, based on this agreement, pledged to upgrade sports and cultural facilities, build and donate public parks, schools and a new hospital.

It also pledged to expand the airport and seaport facilities.

From the signing of the agreement between Deng and Governor Sebastian Anefal, Dr. Rubinstein said ETG intensified its promotional campaign on Yap.

He said as the project’s magnitude became apparent to the Yapese, residents began raising objections to the planned casino.

As on Saipan, there was a gathering of signatures to oppose the proposal.

The Yap Legislature also adopted a resolution slowing down the approval process to give the people more time to vet on the proposal.

"Yap’s Executive and Legislative Branches of government, along with the members of the Traditional Chiefs’ Council of Pilung, became increasingly polarized over this issue," said Dr. Rubinstein.

Just as the women on Saipan banded together to oppose the casino in the late 1970s, on Yap, the Yap Women’s Association issued a letter to the traditional and elected leaders pleading for a halt to the proposed development.

Dr. Rubinstein said that in Yapese culture, the request of Yapese women carries weight and must be respected.

The Dalip Pi Nguchol, the paramount chiefs of Yap, have also expressed their opposition.

With pressure from the community, Governor Anefal wrote to ETC to rescind their previous agreement.

However, this agreement was neither dissolved nor reconsidered.

ETG continued to promote the proposed casino which was backed by the endorsement of the FSM president.

Dr. Rubinstein’s paper also stated that the president even persuaded the Yapese to agree to a downscaled investment without casino gambling.

He also stated that ETG’s founder disappeared over allegations of corruption.

Samoa, Yap’s sister island, withdrew ETG’s casino license.

Despite this, it remained business as usual for ETG as it continues to hold a valid business license and foreign investment permit on Yap.

Dr. Rubinstein said that ETG’s representative continues to operate and signs 99-year land leases with landowners on the island’s coastline and fringing reef.

A case for regional security

Dr. Rubinstein said that with the continuing drama, one question has bedeviled the issue: what’s China’s real purpose in building a billion-dollar resort complex in Yap?

Although ETG has been claiming that this is purely a business offer, Dr. Rubinstein said, "yet the haste with which ETG has pursued this project, and the apparent absence of any cost analysis or feasibility studies makes one wonder whether the project is simply a money-making scheme."

He said some observers pointed out that ETG is pursuing casino operations on Yap and Samoa, the islands closest to America’s Pacific territories: Guam and American Samoa.

Dr. Rubinstein said, "The repositioning of American military forces involves building up troop numbers and training exercises in both Guam and American Samoa. We might question now whether Yap is becoming a part of a geopolitical Go game, that ancient Chinese board game in which players occupy adjacent areas and compete to control the larger total area."

He also raised the question of the support of the Yapese and FSM leaders for the proposal.

Dr. Rubinstein said both Anefal and Mori based their support on the impending loss of U.S. funding in 2023.

"There is clearly a sense of vulnerability — of desperation even — among Micronesian leaders and citizens looking towards the near future," he said.

For Dr. Rubinstein, ETG has been successful at "exploiting this apprehension."

He also said that many Yapese citizens claim that selling their land, is tantamount to selling their souls.

The casino proposal on Yap is still on the table.

Dr. Rubinstein said come November this year, the Yapese will go to the polls to elect a new governor.

"The election is shaping up as a referendum on the ETG project," he said.

On Saipan, the leaders who supported the casino measure will also face a similar test in November.

As the people consider the casino proposal, Dr. Rubinstein said, "there is wisdom in the basket," as he alluded to a common Yapese expression.

For Dr. Rubinstein, the slow preparation of betel nut serves as a metaphor for achieving individual wisdom and social consensus through careful reflection and deliberate thought.

He said, "As Yapese debate their future and weigh the proposal before them, they will need all the cultural wisdom they can muster."

Variety tried on several occasions to reach Governor Sebastian Anefal for his comments; however, this reporter was often told by the operator that the governor was "busy."

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