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Singapore transforms into a gambling hot spot

The traditionally uptight Asian city-state is poised to eclipse Las Vegas next year as the world's second largest gaming destination after lifting a decades-old ban on gambling and opening two new casinos last year. At the same time, the government has enacted regulations that make it difficult for Singaporeans to gamble.

June 22, 2011|By David Pierson, Los Angeles Times

Other critics said the resorts underscored the government's lack of vision — calling it a quick fix that does little to resolve the country's economic challenges.

"They've run out of ideas," said Tan Jee Say of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party. "The casinos prey on human weakness to capture economic growth. Is this a long-term solution? I don't think so."

For now, at least, the strategy has given Singapore a boost. Last year, a record 11.6 million tourists visited the country, and the two casino resorts were estimated to have accounted for 1.7% of Singapore's gross domestic product, the government said.

"Access to two large casinos in a prosperous city is a winning formula," said Huei Suen Ng, an analyst for brokerage CLSA in Hong Kong.

Ng estimates that the casinos contribute 90% of the resorts' total revenue. She said Singapore will likely match Las Vegas for gaming dollars this year at around $6.5 billion but then surge past it next year with estimated revenue of $8.1 billion.

Macao is still by far the biggest gambling site in the world, scoring $23.5 billion in gaming revenue last year.

The more Singapore's casinos grow, the greater the potential social fallout. Despite the hefty entrance tax, locals are suspected of constituting a higher percentage of visitors than originally intended, though no numbers have been reported. One lawmaker proposed tripling the fee. Meanwhile, treatment for gambling addiction is reportedly on the rise.

Janice Lin, a 21-year-old college student and Singapore native, said she's increasingly concerned about her parents, who park themselves in front of slot machines for hours at a time about five days a week.

"They'll come home at 4 a.m. carrying a bag of a thousand $1 coins and explain it's from the office, not the casino," she said. "I'm really worried. I don't have a say."

Lin said her parents also indulge in casino cruises that take passengers to international waters, one of the few ways Singaporeans could gamble before the resorts opened.

Demand for gambling was bottled up in Singapore for years, said Desmond Lam, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Macau and author of "The World of Chinese Gambling."

The urge to play is partly a reflection of the country's majority ethnic Chinese population, which Lam said has a predilection for risk-taking.

"Chinese people are superstitious," said Lam, who is a Chinese native of Singapore. "There's a belief that they can harness their luck and take control of the gambling table."

david.pierson@latimes.com

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