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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - VIP treatment continues as Ariston's casino opens

VIP treatment continues as Ariston's casino opens

VIP treatment continues as Ariston's casino opens

P HNOM Penh's glitzy floating casino opened this week, despite the absence of a

gaming law in Cambodia and after the original advice of foreign consultants and

the Ministry of Tourism was ignored.

The May 1 fanfare opening of "Asia's

plushest casino", attended by a host of dignitaries, failed to dampen months of

controversy and criticism.

The casino boat is the first result of a

still-secret contract, said to be worth $1.3 billion, between the Royal

government and Malaysian company Ariston.

The contract followed an

international tender process by the Ministry of Tourism which, critics say, was

ignored by senior government officials who negotiated their own deal with

Ariston.

While the ministry was seeking international tenders to build

and operate a casino on Sihanoukville Naga Island, the Council for the

Development of Cambodia (CDC) was negotiating separately with

Ariston.

Ministry staff, fearing a contract would be imposed upon them,

sped up the tender process to try to find the best tenderer as quickly as

possible, according to a source closely involved.

Consultants from three

foreign firms were appointed to a ministry tender evaluation committee, while a

gaming law to oversee the casino's running was drafted.

Ariston was among

those who bid for the tender which closed last November. But the source said the

ministry evaluation committee's unanimous preference was for Hyatt

International. By then, it was too late. A separate deal - allowing a casino in

Phnom Penh until the Naga Island one was built - had been struck with Ariston by

the CDC, and the boat was already in Phnom Penh.

The first that Minister

of Tourism Veng Sereyvuth knew of the deal, according to another source, was

from a phone call from Transport Minister Ing Kiet - asking him about a request

from CDC Secretary General Chantol Sun to allow the boat mooring

rights.

Six months later the casino - Naga Casino Resorts - opened its

doors despite no gaming law having been passed.

At a press conference

after the opening, Chantol Sun refused to answer how the boat came to be in

Phnom Penh before an official decision on the tenders had been announced. He

acknowledged, under questioning, that the government's "opinion" on who should

get the contract had differed from that of foreign tender

advisers.

Chantol Sun said the government could expect to reap about $12

million a year in taxes from Ariston, but he had no firm figures to support

that.

"It is still very early, and we are unsure what the [casino]

turnover is as yet likely to be," he said.

Ariston president Dr Chen Lip

Keong said he had been assured a gaming law would be introduced soon, and any

other outstanding issues could be sorted out. "We are familiar with local

sensitivities. I know we will work closely together, formulate policies and

guidelines beneficial to everyone."

On the Sihanoukville part of the

contract - which requires Ariston to expand the airport, build a power station

and improve other facilities - he said Ariston had nine months to submit a plan

to the government. "There have been a number of constraints, a lot of technical

difficulties... It is a gestation period of a massive plan."

Critics,

however, say Ariston's contract with the government - which has been withheld

from MPs - should have included detailed plans for Sihanoukville. "They should

have already broken the ground in Sihanoukville," said one source who worked on

the tender process.

He said the secrecy surrounding the deal, and the

lack of a gaming law, offered no guarantee that whatever taxes the casino paid

would not go "straight into the pockets of certain people". Said another critic

who was involved in the tender process: "There seems to be no time schedule.

It's easy to say we will invest $1.3 billion, but when - next

century?"

MP Son Chhay, chairman of a National Assembly committee with

responsibility for tourism, said the committee had received no information about

the contract. He believed the floating casino was aimed at raising money for the

Sihanoukville development; if they didn't make enough, it would not go

ahead.

The Ministry of Tourism said the Royal government welcomed the

floating casino because it would increase state revenue, provide employment and

attract foreign tourists.

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