Casino firms punt on Asian love of gambling

SINGAPORE – Once a month, investment banker Joe and three of his friends drive an hour from Kuala Lumpur to the hilltop resort of Genting for an extended lunch of a different sort — playing roulette.

They gamble for four hours and make it back to the Malaysian capital in time for dinner, their wives and employers none the wiser.

“It’s fun. Whether in the stock market or in the casino, it’s a punt,” said Joe, 34, an ethnic Chinese who declined to give his real name.

Singapore’s founding prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, once described the ethnic Chinese, who drive much of Asia’s wealth, as “congenital gamblers”.

That habit — visible at a cockfight, the mahjong table or the racecourse — has now coupled with rising affluence to draw gaming firms such as MGM Mirage and Wynn Resorts who are eager to invest billions of dollars in Asia.

“The region is home to the fastest growing casino market,” said Jonathan Galaviz, an analyst at consultancy Globalysis.

Led by rapid growth in the tiny Chinese city of Macau, revenues from Asia’s 80 or so licensed casinos are likely to grow 20 percent to US$13 billion (7.5 billion pounds) this year, Las Vegas-based Globalysis said. Illegal casinos rake in an estimated $100 billion.

IN THE BLOOD

“There appears to be something about Chinese culture and social life that encourages gambling,” said Loren Tepperman, a sociologist at the University of Toronto, noting that many Chinese start betting when children in family games.

Across Asia, opportunities for gambling have proliferated.

Millions of mainland tourists pour into casinos in Macau, the only city in China where casinos are legal. Gaming revenues in the former Portuguese enclave have catapulted above those reported by casinos in the glitzy Las Vegas Strip.

Chinese gamblers can jump to border-town gambling dens in Vietnam, North Korea and Myanmar. Thai punters head to Cambodia while Singaporeans opt for cruise ships around the island’s international waters.

Singapore’s Lee, 82, opposed casinos in the city-state as its prime minister but now backs plans to open two local gaming resorts, rather than see tourism and tax receipts vanish offshore.

Major U.S. players Harrah’s Entertainment, MGM Mirage and Las Vegas Sands are vying to build and run the resorts, costing $5 billion, which will compete for gamblers such as Brick Liu when they open by 2009.

Liu, a 35-year-old manager at a state-owned firm in China’s Shenzhen, earns more than 300,000 yuan (21,000 pounds) a year and travels to the Philippines, Las Vegas, Malaysia and Macau to gamble, betting up to 10,000 yuan per trip.

“Gambling’s just a kind of entertainment for me,” he said.

WHALES AHOY

Las Vegas has long relied on “whales”, or players who bet up to US$5 million in the course of a single trip, and Asian tycoons like Oei Hong Leong of the wealthy Indonesian-Chinese Widjaja attract media attention at the gaming tables.

One ethnic Chinese billionaire reportedly gave a US$1 million credit line to his daughter when she turned 21 during a trip to Las Vegas in 1995.

“Casinos everywhere run programmes to attract such players,” said Merrill Lynch analyst Sean Monaghan. These include free air tickets, accommodation and meals.

High rollers account for about 20 percent of global casino receipts, but about 60 percent of Asian revenues, analysts said.

The region’s growing wealth is creating a potential new pool of big players — Asia Pacific now has an estimated 2.3 million people with at least $1 million in financial assets, almost as many as the U.S., according to Merrill Lynch/Capgemini.

Revenues generated from rooms reserved solely for high-end players of baccarat, a popular card game in Asia, amounted to $3.5 billion, or 61 percent of Macau’s total gaming revenue last year, government data showed.

SHARKS` FIN SOUP

Las Vegas Sands has exported its exclusive “Paiza Club,” which offers personal concierge and limousine services, from Macau to its Venetian Resort, known for its canals and gondolas.
“The fact that we have a club like this in a Venice-themed building in the middle of Vegas tells you the degree to which we cater to our Asian players,” said Sands spokesman Ron Reese.

Now its U.S. resort serves Chinese delicacies such as sharks` fin soup and Peking duck as well as Chinese medicinal herbs and business jumped 20 percent over Chinese New Year, the firm said.

Asian big spenders are often accompanied by junket operators who set up the trips and act as valets and bankers.

“If they call me at 4 am, asking to borrow S$50,000 (18,000 pounds), I`ll say: “No problem,” and lend them the money interest free,” said Angela Ong, who has worked for a Singapore-based junket operator for the last five years.

Ong knows all about the quirky ways of her specially vetted clients. Some only play on auspicious dates while others put food on the gambling table to distract evil spirits.

And if a gambler is losing, he may duck out of the room briefly — according to Chinese gambling custom, it’s lucky to change your underpants.

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