James Packer’s plan to build a US$1 billion casino without slot machines in Sydney has moved a step closer, with the mogul confident of luring Asian high-rollers who enjoy the “rush” of gambling.
Packer, who already operates casinos in Melbourne, Perth and Macau and is planning a complex in Manila, is nearer to his Sydney dream after winning bipartisan political support for a licence.
The New South Wales state government gave initial approval on Thursday to the proposal at the Barangaroo development site in the shadow of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
State Premier Barry O’Farrell said the facility would help NSW compete “in the lucrative and booming Asian tourism market” and it would now be subject to “a rigorous financial appraisal” on the benefits it could bring.
But Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore said she was “appalled” at the process, with no tendering or public consultation.
“It’s public land. It’s probably one of the most important sites in Australia, it is harbour-side, adjacent to the global city of Australia, and yet there’s no consultation,” she said.
“There’s no public consultation and it’s all been done behind closed doors by both the major parties to James Packer.”
Packer plans to build a six-star hotel – Sydney’s first – and a VIP invitation-only gaming resort that will be the first in the world with no poker machines.
“This is not an economic no-brainer,” the Crown chairman told a business dinner on Thursday evening.
“You know, there has never been a casino in the world built for a billion dollars without slot machines. So we’re entering virgin territory.”
Since his father Kerry’s death in 2005, Packer has moved the family business away from its traditional media operations and focused on creating a worldwide gambling empire.
The Crown boss said it was his larger-than-life father who first sparked his interest in the gaming industry.
“I spent a lot of time in casinos as a kid with my dad and I ended up thinking, this must be a good business,” he said.
“My dad was a lot smarter than I am and a lot more successful than I’ll ever be, but he got his adrenalin rushes from going to a casino. That’s the customer that we want.”
Asian high-rollers, particularly the growing ranks of wealthy Chinese, are his target, with China on track to overtake Britain as Australia’s number two market for tourist arrivals this year. New Zealand is currently number one.
Visiting a casino ranked high among Chinese “things to do”, he said, and “we’re not keeping up”.
“What we have to do is say, ‘How are we going to maximise this Chinese tourism (boom) to Australia?”
Sydney already has one casino – The Star – but Packer said there was room for another.
“This is more than just about money for me,” he said. “I am a great believer in Sydney. This country has been incredibly kind to my family, this city has been incredibly kind to my family.
“My dad was a larger-than-life figure and I think this is my chance to do something, you know, that is special.”