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
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
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
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
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
"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."
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
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
The Ministry of Tourism said the Royal government welcomed the
floating casino because it would increase state revenue, provide employment and
attract foreign tourists.