PHNOM PENH, May 1 -- A $50 million floating casino opened by Cambodia's prime minister Monday has been hailed by the government as a 'new start for Cambodia's tourist industry'. The casino was approved because Cambodia needed foreign investment to 'raise living standards,' Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh said at the opening ceremony. 'The government has banned the export of timber so we have to find another source of income...such as tourism and agribusinesses,' said Ranariddh. 'Revenue from the casino would be used to renovate Phnom Penh roads, sewage systems and public sectors,' Ranariddh said. Under a $1.3 billion contract signed in Malaysia in January, the government has given Dr. Chen Lip Keong, president and major shareholder of Ariston Sdn, exclusive rights to operate casinos in Cambodia. As part of the contract, Ariston must also present plans by September for the construction of a luxury resort and casino on Naga Island, near the southern port of Sihanoukville. The company has also contracted to build power, airport and water facilities for Sihanoukville as part of the 'casino package,' the prime minister said. Local critics have claimed the company was awarded the contract because royalties of more than $100 million dollars will be paid to the government by Ariston Sdn. State Secretary for Finance Chantol Sun confirmed that around $3 million had already been received by the government under the conditions of the contract, and that 'further installments would be paid.' The casino has been condemned locally by the Buddhist Liberal Development Party (BLDP), who hold 10 seats in the national parliament and whose press release appeared Monday in the 'Voice of Khmer Youth' newspaper.
The BLDP statement recalled the opposition of Cambodians to previous casinos which operated in 1949 and 1968-69, which the BLDP said had 'damaged and disrupted the economic development of the country.' 'Gambling will create more difficulties than it will contribute to the development of our country,' the BLDP release charged. Government and Ariston officials were unable to provide an estimate on expected revenues from the casino, but said the company would initially pay only 8 percent tax on winnings. The casino, which has four floors of gaming rooms and will only be open to foreign passport holders, is moored alongside shanty towns and squatter camps on the Bassac River in central Phnom Penh.