The Philippines aims to become Asia's next big gambling hub with casino and entertainment resorts to be built in tourist spots across the country, the nation's gaming regulator told AFP Tuesday.
An "Entertainment City" in Manila to rival boom towns Macau and Singapore is at the heart of the plan and will hopefully be finished by 2014, Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation (PAGCOR) chairman Cristino Naguiat said.
"The casino industry here in the Philippines has a very huge potential in terms of revenues," Naguiat, who took over as chairman a month ago, said in an interview with AFP.
"We are way behind Macau and Singapore in terms of the casino industry... (but) we would like to be positioned right at the top."
Like other Asian gambling industries, the Philippines wants to tap into the vast mainland Chinese market, Naguiat said. "We are maybe not even getting 0.01 percent of what is the potential market there," he said.
Naguiat said the government eventually hoped to build integrated casino and entertainment resorts in other parts of the Philippines, including picturesque Palawan island and Cebu, the nation's second biggest city.
PAGCOR was open to hearing from foreign players interested in participating, he said. "We would like to receive their proposals," Naguiat said.
However he emphasised that only proposals incorporating other entertainment aspects besides gambling, such as amusement centres and museums, would be considered. "It has to be an integrated resort, not just a casino and a hotel."
Four licenses to build Entertainment City on reclaimed land along Manila Bay were awarded in 2008 under the previous government of president Gloria Arroyo.
Japanese gambling firm Aruze Corp and a Philippine joint venture with an arm of Malaysia's Genting Group won two of the contracts to build casinos at the resort.
Local high-end property developer Belle Corp and Bloombury, headed by Philippine business magnate Enrique Razon, won the other contracts.
Naguiat acknowledged delays in starting construction, partly because the companies did not want to proceed during the final phase of Arroyo's government.
"They were scared of doing it during the previous government because they were pretty sure that the new government would review all of these contracts," he said.
He said the new government of President Benigno Aquino, which took office on June 30, was indeed reviewing the situation and PAGCOR would ensure the licensees build a fully integrated resort including museums, amusement parks and shopping centres.
"It should be more than the casino. That's what we are trying to emphasise, that the casino is the money earner for the project but we would like to see more than the casino," he said.
Naguiat said Pagcor was aiming to present Aquino with a review of Entertainment City and other aspects of the gaming industry by the end of the month.
The four Entertainment City licensees would then be given the government's requirements in September.
Each licensee was required to spend at least one billion dollars in developing the resort, he added.
However he indicated that some big-ticket items promoted by PAGCOR under the Arroyo government would likely be scrapped, among them one of Asia's tallest observation towers, a sports stadium, a race track and a nursing home.
Naguiat said PAGCOR was also meant to build a rail link between the resort and Manila's international airport, but the body would not go ahead with this.
Either the developers would build the link or it would not be built, he said.
Naguiat also repeated PAGCOR statements in recent days that the company, which operates a dozen other casinos in the Philippines, was looking to be privatised during Aquino's six-year term.
However Pagcor would remain the industry regulator, he said.