Attracted by lax regulations and little oversight, an increasing number of operations are popping up in the Kingdom offering webcam betting
A surge in new casino licences this year is a sign of an aggressive push into the poorly regulated field of online gaming, particularly in Sihanoukville, where Chinese investors are rumoured to be investing in properties to convert into online live-dealer casino operations.
Cambodia has built its gaming industry by positioning itself as a destination for Asian gamblers looking to circumvent gambling restrictions in their home countries. Most of its casinos are small-scale affairs positioned near the Kingdom’s border crossings attracting Thai and Vietnamese gamblers prohibited from gambling on their own soil.
Due to an anti-corruption drive in China and tighter surveillance of its biggest gambling hub, Macau, more and more Chinese gamblers are finding their way to Cambodia’s loosely regulated and under-supervised casinos
According to Ros Phirun, deputy director of the financial industry department of the Ministry of Economy and Finance, 16 new casino licences have been issued so far this year, bringing the total to 75.
Most of the new operators are looking to offer online gambling, which is tolerated in the absence of regulation provided it is operated out of a licensed brick-and-mortar casino.
Phirun said the ministry does not track who operates casinos in Cambodia, but many of the new entrants are in Sihanoukville.
“Mostly, the Chinese operate the online gambling in Sihanoukville,” Phirun said. “Since it’s not the border area and not as many tourists come there, it is [dominated] by the Chinese.”
Increasingly, these online operators are adding live-dealer play, tapping into one of the fastest-growing markets for cross-border gaming.
Lorien Pilling, director of UK-based Global Betting and Gaming Consultants, said live-dealer gaming has grown in popularity as a result of some players’ scepticism regarding the fairness of random-number generators used by electronic gaming software.
Live-dealer games provide live streaming video of actual dealers in a real casino setting – though it need not be inside an actual casino. A warehouse, studio or any room that can be filled with gaming tables for the purpose on internet gambling will suffice.
Webcams capture the action at the gaming tables. A live croupier faces the camera and operates the game as in a normal casino. In most of these operations, online gamblers can chat with the croupier or with other online players. Some may even allow proxies to place bets.
“Live-dealer gaming is certainly very popular in Asia, particularly for baccarat, because it is closer to a ‘real’ casino than random-number generated casino games, and you can also interact with the dealer via a chat facility,” Pilling said.
He said with Asia generally under-served by land-based casinos in relation to the population, “live-dealer casinos are the ‘next best thing’ for gamblers who cannot easily visit a casino in person”.
Likewise, for casinos, live-dealer betting offers the chance to ring in revenues from far beyond their gaming room floor, said Jonny Ferrari, the online marketing director for Start Live Casino, a Cambodian developer of online casino software.
“Live-dealer online is the future for all casinos,” Ferrari said. “In order for casinos to be able to pull in higher business revenue, they need to reach players from all geographical regions, and in order to reach this target, casinos need to bring the games to the players.”
But while online gaming software allows casinos to operate on a shoestring budget, live-dealer operators must invest in labour and robust back-office infrastructure.
Cameras, studio equipment and dedicated high-speed broadband connections are needed for the live feed, while dealers, translators and a tech crew are required for operations.
By some estimates, a flood of Chinese workers have already descended upon Sihanoukville to operate online live-dealer casinos.
Chinese nationals are needed, as casino employees are often required to communicate with and place proxy bets for the predominantly Chinese pool of offshore gamblers. In addition to language barriers, Cambodian nationals are prohibited from gambling.
The White Sand Palace Hotel, a new partially opened luxury hotel near Sihanoukville’s Ochheuteal Beach could be ground-zero for the next big push in live-dealer gaming.
While the hotel’s management would only confirm that its casino would offer online gaming, local sources claim many of the mammoth hotel’s more than 300 rooms will be converted into “mini online gaming rooms”, each with a separate broadband internet connection.
The same group of Chinese investors behind the casino operation have purportedly leased at least three other hotels and guesthouses in Sihanoukville to support their $50 million virtual gaming project, according to one local hotel owner, who claims the investors approached him to rent out his hotel.
“They are planning to put casinos into the Golden Sands and the White Sands Palace, and convert part of their rooms into online gambling rooms,” said the hotel owner, who declined to be named.
“The Orchidee Guesthouse with its 72 rooms is supposed to be converted into an administrative centre and online gambling rooms. The Rophana with 22 or 24 rooms they want to keep open to the public, especially Chinese tourists.”
He claimed another Chinese outfit leased the former 38-room DD Mark II to house its casino staff, and rented a nearby guesthouse for its online operations.
“Since their dealers are all Chinese they have a considerable requirement for accommodation, as they work 24/7 in three or four shifts,” he added.
While it is legal for any licensed casino operator to run an internet-based gambling site out of a physical casino, opposition lawmaker Son Chhay argues that many operations are being operated illegally out of guesthouses, rented offices and villas.
“These kinds of businesses can operate from anywhere, since they pay online,” he said. “I think they bribed the government officials to not arrest them or stop their business from operating.”