Casino destination set for Northern Mariana Islands

Plans for over $15bn to be invested in the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) could see rise to a new international gaming and tourism hotspot. The self-governing US territory has now passed legislation to permit casinos on its three permanently inhabited islands, Saipan, Tinian and Rota.

Saipan, the largest island, passed its casino amendment bill earlier this year in a controversial move despite being rejected by voters. The law rushed through the House and Senate just one day apart in order to trigger the release of funds held in escrow for pension payments. It was re-enacted a few months later to ward off ambiguities and allow the government to award an exclusive casino license.

Best Sunshine International, a subsidiary of Hong Kong-based Imperial Pacific Holdings, beat off competition from Marianas Stars to receive the license. The company has set out a huge budget of $7.1bn for a five-phase development project over the next six years. The proposed complex would include a total of 4,252 hotel rooms, 300 villas, 1,600 gaming tables and 3,500 slot machines.

“Total development costs under the business plan are currently estimated to be approximately US$7.1 billion, equivalent to approximately HK$55.1 billion,” confirmed the company in its filing with the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. This huge figure surpasses the amount spent on existing world-class integrated resorts, such as $5.5bn on Marina Bay Sands and a $4bn average in Macau.

The company is pursuing land occupied by Mariana Resort, the oldest Japanese hotel investment on Saipan, with a takeover bid for when the lease expires in 2018. Although, Japanese investor and owner of the existing property, Kan Pacific Saipan, is currently negotiating with the government to extend its contract for another 40 years and force Best Sunshine to locate a new site.

“We are working around the land that is presently being leased,” informed Pete A. Tenorio, Department of Public Lands Secretary. “Those lands now that are not committed that belongs to the public are being looked at and that’s what we are negotiating for Phase 1. No decision has been made, nor an offer made yet to Best Sunshine for the land. Everything is still a work in process.”

Located approximately 2,500km east of the Philippines and 2,500km south of Japan, Saipan is a growing tourism hub with several hotels in the works. Best Sunshine will look to attract this expanding market, as well as VIP gamblers from China and Southeast Asia. The company also invests in Hengsheng Group, a major junket operator in Macau, and wants to lure high rollers to the new, tropical destination.

Over on its neighbouring island, Tinian, home to less than a fifth of the CNMI population, four investment groups are looking to develop gaming and tourism resorts. Shanghai-backed Saipan Jinghua Investment has proposed to build a $4bn integrated resort on a 300ha parcel on the east of the island and Bridge Investment Group is planning to build the $300m Tinian Ocean View Resorts.

Hong Kong-based Mega Stars Overseas, the parent company of Mariana Stars, acquired Tinian Dynasty Hotel and Casino last year and is undergoing a complete revamp of the property. The company has already invested more than $40m to keep the operation afloat, is planning on-going renovations and is reviewing the possibility of building a $1bn integrated resort on Puntan Kastiyu in Tinian.

Alter City Group, a consortium of investors from mainland China, Macau and Singapore, has secured 152ha of land on Tinian’s Puntan Diablo, to build a $360bn integrated resort. Plans feature two hotels, two casinos, 10 VIP villas, eight beachfront building of over 800 apartment units, a waterpark and 18-hole golf course, to roll out in three phases over the next twelve years.

Rota Island also has legalised casino gaming, but only had one casino, Rota Treasure Island, which operated for a few months before closing in March 2011. KSA Corp., trading as IH Corp., indicated its intention earlier this year to spend $500m on developing three hotel-casinos on the island and has formed a partnership with Rota Treasure Island Corp., Rota’s casino license holder.

As each project gains momentum, the twinkling of a new tropical casino gem moves closer to being born in the Pacific Ocean. CNMI is halfway through a Tourism Master Plan funded by a grant from the US Department of Interior’s Office of Insular Affairs. Visitor arrivals increased 11per cent to 433,736 last year, with the biggest growth, of 43 per cent to 112,570, coming from mainland China.