Former British fortress to host one of Singapore's casino resorts - Tuesday 12th of April 2005

A former British colonial fortress which has been struggling to succeed as a theme park and beach resort is now hoping to finally make it to the ranks of Asia's top island destinations.

Sentosa, a leafy 500-hectare (1,235-acre) islet off one of the world's busiest ports, received a massive boost last week after the government gave the green light to a casino resort expected to draw tourists from around the world.

Sentosa had been suffering for years as new attractions failed to pull in the crowds, and was already in the midst of an ambitious revival when news of the casino resort's approval came on April 18.

"It kind of is the final piece of the puzzle that guarantees this island will fulfill our vision," Darrell Metzger, chief executive officer of state-owned Sentosa Leisure Group, told AFP.

The former boss of Hong Kong's famous Ocean Park is overseeing the ambitious 10-year revamp involving 6.1 billion US dollars.

Metzger hopes the casino resort will fast-track Sentosa's transformation into "the premier resort island in Asia," not just a languid islet offering golf, swimming, hiking and a walk-through aquarium with placid sharks.

A visit now to Sentosa, about a 15-minute car ride via a causeway from Singapore's central business district, shows a flurry of construction activity. Even its beaches have been improved with imported sand.

The revamp includes the construction of Singapore's only oceanfront residential houses targeted at well-heeled locals and foreigners.

Spread over 117 hectares, Sentosa Cove comes with an adjoining marina, berths for yachts, two 18-hole golf courses and full resort amenities.

Developers expect it to have 10,000 residents in 2,600 upmarket homes when completed in three years' time.

The proposed casino resort complex, to be located on a 47-hectare land parcel, will become the main draw for Sentosa, Metzger said.

Having a casino will be a radical turn for Sentosa, where former military quarters and rusting armaments are all that remain of what was supposed to be an impregnable fortress protecting Singapore during British colonial rule.

British forces in Sentosa were waiting for Japanese troops to invade Singapore from the sea during World War II but were caught by surprise when the enemy attacked on the opposite side of Singapore via what is now Malaysia.

It took the Japanese just eight days to take control of Singapore.

This time around, Singapore hopes the Japanese will return in great numbers to Sentosa -- as casino players and tourists.

According to the government, investors are prepared to invest more than a billion dollars to build the casino resort on Sentosa which will include theme parks, hotels, restaurants and retail outlets.

"The amount of investment that this resort will bring in is the largest ever (in Sentosa)," Metzger said. "It really will be the anchor tenant for the island which we did not have before."

Bringing in investors experienced in developing mega resort complexes is in the long-term interest of Sentosa, industry players said.

Christopher Khoo, the managing director of local tourism consultancy MasterConsult Services, said that "whoever wins the (Sentosa) project will definitely bring in very strong concepts."

Singapore received 19 bids from some of the world's biggest gaming companies including Las Vegas-based Wynn Resorts, US gaming giant Harrah's Entertainment and Tabcorp of Australia to build two casino resorts.

The other one is to be located in town, close to the banking and convention districts.

Singapore's lifting of a 40-year casino ban is part of a broader plan to halt its falling share of the growing tourism pie in Asia, according to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Metzger said "the key right now is Singapore doesn't have a first class family resort to market... we're missing that."

Sentosa's multi-billion-dollar revamp launched in 2002 is already yielding success with arrivals surpassing the five million mark for the first time in the year to March, up sharply from around two million before the overhaul started.

Sentosa is hoping the revamp, when completed, will attract eight million visitors annually -- almost double Singapore's current population -- and generate more than 500 million dollars in revenues by 2012.

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