* Buddhist leaders, politicians, protest against Packer's
* Packer's local partner allowed to operate casino -minister
* Local entrepreneur, top conglomerate Keells also to
* No new casino licences; Existing five approvals to
By Shihar Aneez
COLOMBO, Dec 17 Sri Lanka has approved
Australian Crown Resorts Ltd's $400 million complex
along with two similar projects, but without any explicit
permission to operate casinos at them, the island's junior
investment minister said on Tuesday.
However, Crown's chief, gambling tycoon James Packer, would
still be able to operate a casino in his mixed-development
project through his local partner, the minister said.
The government's decision to alter the deal's terms came
after opposition politicians said Packer was getting concessions
not given to local entrepreneurs and Buddhist leaders said the
casino could be detrimental to Sri Lanka's culture.
Faizer Mustapha, the deputy investment promotion minister
said a new gazette notification has been issued for Packer's
joint venture and two similar requests by Sri Lanka's top
conglomerate John Keells Holdings and a leading local
businessman Dhammika Perera respectively.
A gazette notification is issued after an approval by the
cabinet of ministers before being presented to the parliament.
"The applications are for mixed development projects, which
include convention centre, shopping malls, and five-star
hotels," Mustapha told Reuters.
"This gazette notification has no mention about a casino
anywhere. So it doesn't deal with running a casino, operating a
casino, or approving a casino."
However, he said there was a separate mechanism for
operating a casino in Sri Lanka and government policy was not to
issue any new casino licences, but to allow existing approvals
to operate under regulations passed in 2010.
Packer said in a speech at a Commonwealth forum last month
said he believed the Indian Ocean island nation could be turned
into a leading tourist hotspot for the rising middle classes of
India, China and the rest of Asia.
Government officials have told Reuters that two Sri Lankan
entrepreneurs have five casino approvals among them. Packer's
Sri Lankan partner Ravi Wijeratne owns two and Dhammika Perera
owns three, they have said.
The Crown resort-casino complex is planned for a two-acre
plot in the heart of the Colombo commercial hub. It has already
been delayed once after the government asked Lake Leisure
Holdings, the joint venture between Crown Ltd and its local
partner, Rank Entertainment Holdings Pvt Ltd, to change its
Local media have reported that Perera, who has been running
casinos on a small scale would use one of his approvals for
Queensbury, a $350 million resort near Packer's planned complex,
and has committed another to Keell's $850 million Water Front
He has also planned to lure one more U.S. or Asian gaming
brand for a third casino approval to build 500-700 room complex
also near Packer's resort.
Sri Lanka's Buddhist leaders have repeatedly urged President
Mahinda Rajapaksa not to allow casinos, saying they are
detrimental to the culture of a country that is a predominantly
Buddhist and where gambling is not approved of morally, despite
the intermittent presence of casinos since 1990s.
Crown has confirmed it was in detailed discussions with the
Sri Lankan government and potential joint venture partners
regarding the development of a 5-star integrated resort.
Packer, one of Australia's richest men, has been in talks
since February with the government about the integrated resort
and investment options as he expands his global gambling
business that includes casinos in Australia, Macau, Britain and
the United States.