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5 Feb, 2007

Singapore Casino Barons Deflect Criticism Over Las Vegas Transplant

SINGAPORE: Developers of the Marina Sands Bay integrated resort here are deflecting criticism that there is nothing Asian about the US$3.6 billion dollar project and that it is just another transplant of a Las Vegas monolith.

After years of presenting itself and its tourism industry as being deeply interlinked with the culture and heritage of Asia, even while being a modern and efficient city, Singapore last May signed off on a design for the gaming, dining, hotel, retail and entertainment complex “that will define the future of Singapore’s tourism landscape.”

The integrated resort is a key component of Singapore’s Tourism 2015 plan which seeks to raise tourism receipts to S$30 billion, double visitor arrivals to 17 million, and creating an additional 100,000 jobs in the services sector. These targets will be met with the help of a S$2 billion Tourism Development Fund allocated for 2005-2015.

To be located right on the waterfront in downtown Singapore, the Marina Bay Sands project is being developed by the Las Vegas Sands Corporation and designed to “dominate the skyline as South-East Asia’s first integrated resort.” The project was awarded in May 2006.

The marketing pitch says that the project ”will include a world-class luxury resort and casino, state-of-the-art convention and exhibition facilities, acclaimed restaurants and an unparalleled array of retail outlets.

The projects’ “timeless design, created by the eminent Moshe Safdie, will establish its distinct identity as the crowning jewel of Singapore’s downtown Marina Bay district. The breathtaking architecture will integrate seamlessly with Singapore’s urban waterfront, lush tropical landscape and vibrant cityscape.”

However, journalists attending the ASEAN Tourism Forum here last week were taken to a briefing at which project executives were pressed to explain why the structure appeared to be more of a transplant of a Las Vegas monolith and paled in comparison to some of Asia’s more historical iconic structures.

The words “Asia” and “culture” were not mentioned once in the audio-visual presentation. The entire focus of the briefing was on how the group would be managing the asset to generate the required visitor numbers and return on investment.

It was made amply clear that a key component of the business strategy would be to integrate it with the group’s other projects, like the Venetian Las Vegas, the Palazzo Las Vegas and the two projects in Macau, the Sands Macau and the Venetian Macau.

Asked to comment, the project’s VP Singapore Development and General Manager George Tanasijevich, said, “Stay tuned, my friend. We will definitely build local culture, tastes and interests into the project from top to bottom. You will see a local face in the food, entertainment and in the nature of the service provided.”

He added, “We don’t presuppose that we can take a Las Vegas model and cut-and-paste it into Singapore. Its inevitable we will make some mistakes. But we are an extremely good asset manager, and the mistakes will be far outnumbered by the advantages.”

He said that the group will incorporate its development experience from Macau and the global economy” as it seeks to “expand cultures well beyond the borders of Singapore and Asia.”

Mr Tanajisevich said he would “take issue with the claim that it does not have an iconic status.” He described it as “Singapore’s Opera House,” a reference to the Sydney Opera House whose jagged-edge design was also heavily criticised in the beginning but went on to become a hugely popular photographic backdrop for tourists to Australia.

He said the group was “very pleased with it, and proud of it”, and enjoyed the backing of the Singapore government which had subjected it to rigorous scrutiny to ensure that it met the overall growth plans of the city-state.

However, the project will also have a heavily US flavour. Mr Tanajisevich said that the group had flown in dozens of American retail giants to generate interest in buying space. “They all liked it,” he said.

Marina Bay Sands will be one of two Integrated Resorts in Singapore, the other being the US$ 3.1 billion Resorts World at Sentosa which will also boast US icons like Hollywood and US-style theme parks, hotel clusters and oceanariums.

Jointly owned by Genting International plc and Star Cruises, the project will be in 2010. The 49-hectare Resort will be home to “Universal Studios Singapore, a theme-park uniquely planned for Sentosa that draws on Universal’s rich Hollywood heritage and global experience.”

When he opened the ATF, Singapore’s Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong said, “Southeast Asia’s rich cultural diversity today reflects its long and fruitful history of interaction with the Chinese, Indian, European and Arabic cultures. In no other region in the world can a traveller find such a diverse and comfortable mix of religions, cultures and cuisines.”

If that was the past, the future is set to be full of retail complexes, convention centres and casinos.

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