- Title: Flush with billions, Macau junket colonizes Saipan with lucrative casino
- Date: 11th December 2016
- Summary: SAIPAN, COMMONWEALTH OF THE NORTHERN MARIANA ISLANDS, U.S.A. (RECENT - NOVEMBER 29, 2016) (REUTERS) VIEW OVER SAIPAN TOURIST RESORT SAIPAN, COMMONWEALTH OF THE NORTHERN MARIANA ISLANDS, U.S.A. (RECENT - NOVEMBER 30, 2016) (REUTERS) TOURIST AT BEACH
- Embargoed: 26th December 2016 02:41
- Keywords: China Saipan casino gambling Chinese money
- Location: SAIPAN, COMMONWEALTH OF NORTHERN MARIANA ISLANDS, U.S.A./MACAU, CHINA
- City: SAIPAN, COMMONWEALTH OF NORTHERN MARIANA ISLANDS, U.S.A./MACAU, CHINA
- Country: Various
- Reuters ID: LVA0015CFUN9H
- Aspect Ratio: 16:9
- Story Text: Nestled in an obscure shopping mall on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, lies possibly the world's most successful casino.
Owned by a former Macao junket operator, the Best Sunshine Live casino in Saipan, a U.S. commonwealth island, has been quietly outperforming some the largest casinos globally, raking in billions of dollars in terms of VIP rolling turnover.
The casino came to Saipan, known more as a tourist destination for Korean and Chinese families, promising to rejuvenate the community of just 50,000.
For many years the economy had been reeling from the collapse of its garment industry and hampered tourism numbers.
Overturning a previous ban on setting up casinos, the government approved the project in 2014 despite a third of legislators voting against it and a similar bill turned down twice before.
"In this specific casino project it went through as quickly as… it didn't have to go through the committee, it was basically, we use the word, rammed down," said Ramon Tebuteb, one of the legislators who voted against granting the company a 40 year monopoly license to operate on the island, believing the bill was passed without proper scrutiny.
Best Sunshine opened its 'test casino' in November 2015.
The tiny property, nestled alongside a Dior shop in a duty free shopping arcade, soon began generating the same or more VIP turnover than Macau's top casinos including the Sands Venetian and Wynn Macau.
Both Best Sunshine and Wynn Macau posted monthly average casino gambling VIP rolling turnover of $3.9 billion, based on company statements, analysts and Reuters estimates. Wynn Macau has 142 VIP tables, Best Sunshine has just 16.
The company, which was granted numerous exemptions, pays only 5 percent gaming tax compared with Macau where casinos pay a 39 percent tax.
Local resident Glen Hunter has been following the casino's success from its inception. He took several legislators to court for violation of open government policies in rushing the legislation through without allowing the public to understand or comment on the bill.
The legislators pled guilty and were fined 500 dollars.
The guilty plea should have rendered the legislation null and void, but according to Hunter by the time the judgement was made the legislators had already repealed the initial law and had enacted a duplicate one.
"You start talking terms of 4 billion dollars worth of chips being bet and you wonder if that's even physically possible, I mean, and so then it starts leading to more and more questions, why is this so out of the norm? Why is this such an anomaly and that's when other questions start coming out and people start asking are we properly, are they under proper oversight? Are we maybe allowing for money laundering, are we maybe allowing for some shady business to go on there," Hunter said.
Imperial Pacific, a Hong-Kong listed company that owns Best Sunshine, turned down requests for an on camera interview to discuss its operations in Saipan.
The company has previously stated in filing to the Hong Kong stock exchange where it is listed that its revenues are not inflated and that it complies with U.S. laws and regulations.
Amongst the island's tiny community feeling is mixed as to whether the casino is a net positive or not. Some recognize it has been a shot in the arm for the local economy, visitor numbers are up and Best Sunshine is paying the government $15 million to help top up its indebted pension fund.
"They say that the casino, our retirement pension, it helps, because before the economy was really down, when the casino went in it's become… we have our money back, from the casino," said retiree Mary Cabrera.
Others worry about whether the island is in a position to handle the industry.
"This is such a small island, we're not so used to a lot of things and I'm afraid of what it will bring in, that's it, because you know our family lives here, pretty much everyone we know here is family, so that's what scares me because gambling, you bring a lot of different kind of people in. I meant, there's even stuff like money laundering, we don't know, it's just something scary," said local resident Tina Crisostimo.
Analysts believe that the astronomical figures generated by the Saipan casino will not go unnoticed by the Chinese authorities, who have grown increasingly wary of citizens travelling outside the country to gamble.
China detained a group of Australia's Crown employees in October for 'gambling offences' and arrested 13 South Korean casino executives in 2015 for luring Chinese to casinos.
In the meantime construction is steaming ahead on a permanent facility for Best Sunshine on Saipan. Imperial is spending $3 billion to build a 14-storey resort in Saipan after winning a 40-year exclusive monopoly licence.
The company is also in discussions with neighbouring Pacific island Palau to set up a small scale resort according to a source familiar with the deal.
When asked about the Palau deal the company said it "will not rule out any other good opportunities for investment when we see fit," in a written response to Reuters.
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