Crown's James Packer wins approval for US$400m Sri Lanka project

Australian casino chief does not have a gaming approval, but can operate with a local partner

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 December, 2013, 9:45pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 December, 2013, 3:31am

Sri Lanka has approved Australian Crown Resorts' US$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.

However, Crown would still be able to operate a casino in the mixed-development project through its local partner, the minister said on Tuesday.

The government's decision to alter the deal's terms came after opposition politicians said Crown's chairman, James Packer, was getting concessions not given to Sri Lankan 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 centres, shopping malls, and five-star hotels," Mustapha said. "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 spot for the rising middle classes of India, China and the rest of Asia.

Government officials have said two Sri Lankan entrepreneurs had five casino approvals among them, Packer's Sri Lankan partner, Ravi Wijeratne, owning two and Perera three.

The Crown resort-casino complex is planned for a 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 and its local partner, Rank Entertainment Holdings, to change its construction plans.