Life

Place your bets

Soon, when Indonesians search the departure board of Jakarta's international airport for their flight details, the flashing "Singapore - Gate 37 - boarding now" message will evoke more than just dreams of exuberant shopping and safe medical checkups.

Dollar signs will light up in people's eyes, as Singapore's first ever casino - located in the Resorts World Sentosa entertainment complex - will be opening its doors to the public tomorrow, the first day of the Tiger Year.

Well, that is what the government of Singapore and Genting Singapore Plc., the company behind the resort, are hoping for.

As chairman of Resorts World Sentosa and the Genting Group, Tan Sri Lim Kok Thay said recently: "This is a significant milestone in Singapore's business history."

The carrot Singapore is dangling in front of affluent Indonesians: Less than 90 minutes of flight to enjoy the unadulterated pleasures of gambling - legally, close to 1,800 hotel rooms in four spanking-new hotels, and Southeast Asia's only Universal Studios theme park.

For those who love schlepping around a concrete jungle of Play-Doe-colored make-believe worlds, or screaming their heads off suspended 40-meters above ground on the tallest roller coaster of its kind, then Resorts World Sentosa is definitely the place to be.

Genting Singapore's 49-hectare US$4.3 billion resort, located on Sentosa Island within eyesight of petrol tankers and cargo freight depot centers, is also a mini-paradise for Universal Studios movie lovers.

They will be able to touch their favorite movie characters, relive unforgettable chases across dinosaur-infested forests, or sit on Shreck's lap in a Far Far Away castle.

Yes, it is not hard to picture a goggle-eyed 8-year-old Rulli running around Universal's Ancient Egypt world, squeezing his Mum's hand exclaiming: "Look Mum, what's that?" pointing to the five giant Anubis carrying ancient stones, while Daddy is playing roulette in the game room nearby.

Or hear the screams of delight from teenagers coming out of the Battlestar Galactica mega rollercoaster in Sci-Fi City world.

To the unimaginative bystander, the world's tallest pair of duelling roller coasters look like an abominable red and blue mesh of pylons.

However, to experienced theme park goers, the Battlestar Galactica ride is bound to guarantee a 70-second rush of adrenaline that will be inked in their memories, and mentioned in their Facebook status.

Resorts World Sentosa has spared no expenses to make sure visitors walk away with memories, from photo-downloading studios, to souvenir shops every 500 meters, selling teddy bears, mugs, key rings, and friendly staff smiling at every corner to top it up.

A cynic might walk across Singapore's Universal studio's Hollywood Boulevard and stare at disbelief at all the shops and food outlets seemingly whispering in his or her ear: "spend, spend, spend". But a dreamer standing in front of the replica of Louis Italian American restaurant in New York's Bronx, will experience Michael's (played by Al Pacino) feeling of revenge - in The Godfather - when gunning down the goons behind his father's assassination attempt.

Carrie Bradshaw fans' hearts will miss a beat when they set eyes on the replica of the New York state library, as they picture her running up the steps of the famous building in her incredible Vivienne Westwood wedding dress.

Universal Studios even promises eternal love.

"If you kiss your partner at the fountain here, it is believed you will find true love," says Vivlek, one of Universal Studios guides, when passing one of the fountains near Madagascar world, one of the seven fantasy worlds themed after DreamWorks Animation's blockbuster movie Madagascar: A Crate Adventure.

Not bad for an entry fee of around US$50 - the exact price of a daily pass hasn't been fixed yet.

With a total of 24 themed rides - including flume rides - when all phases are completed, thrills will be the dish of the day, if one can bare the up-to-90 minutes estimated queuing times on busy days.

The theme park rides however, won't be open yet by Feb. 14. "We are ready to soft-open the casino but are still fine-tuning the rides and shows in the theme park, which are still on schedule to open in the first quarter of 2010," CEO of Resorts World Sentosa, Mr. Tan Hee Teck said this week.

Resorts World Sentosa's Liang Wern Ling, a sales director who looks after Greater China and ASEAN markets, said the resort was expecting between 12 to 13 million visitors in the resort's first operating year, 60 percent of them from overseas.

"Indonesia is among our top three international market *alongside China, India and Malaysia*. We are confident Indonesians will come. They will be among our first visitors."

Well, given there are no casinos in Indonesia, Indonesian high rollers might just do that.

The giant casino's game room, built underneath one of the four hotels in the resort, includes Asian punters' favorite slot and electronic game machines, and a multitude of private gaming rooms tucked away on a different floor.

According to the Casino Control Act released this Monday, bettors will be able to play Blackjack, Caribbean Stud Poker, Casino War, Mini Dice, Money Wheel, Pai Gow, Pontoon, Progressive Texas Hold'em, Tai Sai, Three Card Poker, Non-Commission Three Pictures, Poker, six versions of Baccarat and of course, Roulette.

Faites vos jeux!

Genting Singapore, the company founded by the Lim family that owns Resorts World Sentosa, is sure aiming for billions of revenue, offering its visitors 24-hour access to the casino.

Credit Suisse's gaming expert Foong Wai Loke estimates revenues for Singapore's two casinos - Marine Bay Sands is due to open this year too - could amount to US$2.6 to $2.8 billion in 2010, 2.5 times higher than Malaysia's estimated casino revenue for 2010, but only one fifth of Macau's.

The key swing factor for Singapore's gaming revenue, Loke writes in a 2009 broker note, is the proportion of VIP versus mass market spending.

Will VIPs be enticed by roulette tables in Singapore? A low gambling tax of 5 percent for VIP players who deposit $72,000 to play in private rooms, compared to 39 percent in Macau, could be a good incentive. But it also depends on the availability of junket financing.

Junket operators, or gaming promoters who bring in high rollers to casinos and provide credit to players in the form of rolling chips - chips that are only good for placing bets and cannot be converted to cash chips - are expected to come under strict regulation in Singapore compared to Macau, writes Loke.

In fact, everything in Singapore's casinos is likely to be tightly regulated, from who can get in (21-year-olds and over), to how many gaming machines are allowed (2,500 maximum per casino), what games can be played, or which junket operators can get an operating license.

By imposing restrictions on Singaporeans, such as a $70 entry levy per 24-hour visit (tourists are exempt), the Singapore government wants to ensure the losing hands are not likely to be locals. All slot machines are also adorned with stickers displaying information on problem gambling and help services.

And it sounds like the high rollers are already piling in this weekend. Some of the hotels are already packing up for Imlek or Chinese New Year, which coincides with Valentine's Day, communications manager Lin See told a group of visiting journalists from Indonesia last week.

But gaming analysts believe it will take a lot more than hotel bookings to make Singapore's two new resorts profitable, as non-casino revenues are only expected contribute to 20 percent of the resorts' earnings.

It is said the opening of the two casinos in Singapore (Marine Bay Sands later this year) is likely to help increase the number of visitors to the city-state from 10.1 million in 2008 to 17 million a year by 2015, and visitors annual spending from $10.5 billion in 2008 to over $20 billion, adding up to 1.7 percentage points to the country's GDP in a year.

Genting Singapore estimates the resort has created over 10,000 direct jobs and 35,000 indirect hires.

So, how might Indonesians feel about this? Ecstatic to be able to place bets in their shopping playground? Annoyed the country is not getting a share of the income wealthy Indonesians are generating across the Straits of Singapore by gambling? Or thankful they have other cards in their hands they can play to foster economic growth in their country? Or maybe they are just looking forward to a little bit of fun on a rollercoaster in Singapore.

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