Two weeks after announcing that James Packer’s Crown Resorts would not get a casino in Sri Lanka, the government of the island nation now says gambling will be allowed at his proposed US0 million luxury hotel in the capital of Colombo provided it operates under an existing license held by a local partner.
Government spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella said casinos will be restricted to an area of the city called D.R. Wijewardena Mawatha, which is where Crown plans to build and where Rambukwella said casinos are permissible under the country’s de facto licensing system.
Gaming is not formally regulated in Sri Lanka, but there are around nine foreigners-only casinos operating in tourist hotels in and around Colombo, and two entrepreneurs have five additional casino approvals between them, according to a Reuters report. Packer’s Sri Lankan partner, Ravi Wijeratne, owns two, and local businessman Dhammika Perera owns three.
Rambukwella said no new licenses would be issued, but “There is no legal barrier for existing casino businesses getting new partners. There are five licences issued, and these license holders can have one casino per license. So there’ll be five casinos.”
This is contrary to what the government told the national parliament on April 25 when the Crown project was approved. At the time, the government said no casino would be allowed at the resort.
Leaders of the opposition United National Party reacted vehemently, claiming the government is misleading foreign investors and the public.
“There are no casino licences existing in Sri Lanka. I challenge Rambukwella to table these licences in the parliament,” Harsha de Silva, a UNP legislator, told Reuters. “Those local casino operators have only receipts for paying taxes for their casino operations. They are not licences. Still nobody knows who is issuing casino licences and who will regulate the business.”
Crown’s is one of three new resort casinos proposed for Colombo. Sri Lankan hotel giant John Keells Holdings is backing one, a local company called Vallibel One the other.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa sees gaming as integral to an economic development strategy geared to boosting international tourism and attracting tourism-related foreign investment. Crown obtained his cabinet’s approval back in September. But opposition from the UNP and the powerful Buddhist clergy, which considers gambling a moral and social evil, has been heated.