There are so many success stories in Singapore that it was only a matter of time before the country started betting on its own luck. Two brand new casinos have opened in town since February, the first since the legalization of gambling back in 2005.
Like most projects in Singapore, the Marina Bay Sands and Resorts World casinos were done in style, with meticulous attention to detail and enough confidence to compete with the big players. In fact, some analysts predict the two multi-billion-dollar properties could generate as much revenue as the Las Vegas Strip by as early as next year. With the number of tourists landing on the island increasing, pushing an already fast-growing economy, it looks like a safe bet.
But Singapore is no Vegas, and the government is more cautious than greedy. While aware of the benefits, the small country is fearful of encouraging addiction and crime. To combat these problems, authorities have imposed a heafty levy of SGD 100 on locals for every day of gambling they conduct; tourists and short-term residents can walk in for free. More recently, the free shuttle buses that linked various points around the city to the resorts were forced to discontinue. The measure is expected to slow the number of Singaporeans visiting both properties; more than one million have already done so since they opened.
The first one to spin the roulette was Resorts World, on Sentosa Island. Referred to as an "integrated resort" - another government attempt to veil the casino from locals - Resorts World is a huge development which also includes six hotels, a Universal Studios theme park, the world's largest oceanarium (to be opened in 2011), shops, bars and restaurants.
The casino occupies 15,000 square metres, the maximum area allowed by law. The decoration seems to borrow elements from the outside theme park and the whole atmosphere feels quite extravagant... if not a bit tacky. On a stage at the back of the main floor, the "Blazing Light Extravaganza" show features regular acts singing Mandarin power-ballads. There is even a tiny hawker-centre (a local version of a food court), where losers may drown their sorrows in a bowl of laksa, the traditional local noodle soup.
Regardless of the levy, a lot of the visitors are Singaporeans, crowding the baccarat tables and casually dropping SGD 1,000 bills. The casino also gives locals access to an exclusive room, the "Orchid Club". Women have their own private area, the "Ladies Club", with 12 tables cleverly staffed by smiling male croupiers.
The talk to the town lies a few miles east, near the heart of the country's financial district. Owned by Las Vegas Sands Corp., the Marina Bay Sands complex has became an instant hit since it opened in April. Boasting a 2,500-room, five-star hotel as well as an exhibition centre, a theatre, shopping mall and even a museum, its daring architecture completely changed the skyline of the city.
Perhaps its most audacious feature is the Sky Park, an elevated boat-shaped "platform" that stretches across the three towers of its hotel. At the top, 200m above sea level, guests can enjoy a swim in a 150m-infinity pool, which appears to spill water over the bay.
Its elegant and grand casino spreads over four underground levels (also totalling 15,000sqm) and includes more than 600 gaming tables and 1,500 slot machines, as well as special lounges for more fortunate gamblers. The main gaming floor is crowned by one of the world's largest chandeliers, containing more than 130,000 Swarovski crystals.
On the top floors, gamblers can find a selection of fine dining restaurants including Santi, by renowned Spanish chef Santi Santamaria and a branch of Parisian Guy Savoy. Non-gamblers can still visit these restaurants but have to enter from the mall, not the casino.
Unfortunately for some, smoking is allowed pretty much everywhere inside the casino and second hand smoke is unavoidable.
Technology plays a major role in both casinos. Individual computerized stations allow dozens of players to place bets on the same game and the anonymity encourages further betting. There is a free flow of refreshments - but since this is Singapore, they are all alcohol-free.
It is still early days for gambling in the tiny city-state. Time will tell if the government will remain happy about its legalization. But for now, it seems to be hitting the jackpot.