China Raises Stakes in Laos

Casino operations are bolstered in an area reserved for Chinese investments.
2011-01-12
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The golden-domed main casino building at the Chinese SEZ in Laos' Bokeo province.
The golden-domed main casino building at the Chinese SEZ in Laos' Bokeo province.
RFA

Another casino building has been launched in a sprawling Chinese-run special economic zone (SEZ) in Laos under expansion plans which could see a flourishing center housing mostly 200,000 Chinese workers and their families, local officials and tour operators say.

Dokngiewkham, the Chinese company developing and running the massive zone in Bokeo province, unveiled the new building last month, adding to an existing casino and a luxury hotel which remain the key revenue generators in the area.

A new 700-room hotel is also in the pipeline together with a road network that will make the SEZ easily accessible.

“The casino building was completed and opened last month, but the bowling alley and shopping center projects have been shelved,” one local official linked to the project told RFA.

Investments wooed

BotenBokeoChina-305.jpg
Map showing the location of the Chinese casino complexes, in Bokeo and Boten in Laos. (RFA) Photo: RFA

A Thai tourism official, who was briefed on the project during a visit to the SEZ recently, said Dokngiewkham, known by its English name The King Romans Group, was wooing investments from Thailand to help finance the project’s expansion.

“They plan to expand, eventually accommodating 200,000 people in the zone,” said Aphisa Traksin, president of the Thai Tour Operators Association in Chiangrai province, the northernmost area of Thailand and bordering Burma and Laos.

The local Lao official could not confirm the figure, saying, “Yes, they are expanding to an extent where the place can contain many, many people.”

The Bokeo casino draws crowds mostly from China and Thailand, where gambling is officially illegal.

Nearly all of the several thousand people living and working in the zone are from China, a key investor in cash-starved Laos and whose investments nearly match those from traditional ally and neighbor Vietnam.

The existing hotel, restaurants, shops, and currency used in the zone are all Chinese.

Endorsing a 14-day free entry stamp into foreign visitors’ passports is about the only remaining semblance of authority still exercised by the host Laotian government in the zone, according to a recent report.

“We have our own government inside the zone,” one casino executive told The Diplomat, an online international current-affairs magazine for the Asia-Pacific region.

99-year lease

The Lao communist government has signed over 10,000 hectares (24,710 acres) to Dokngiewkham on a 99-year lease basis, The Diplomat said in a report.

A prime ministerial decree last year set out the guidelines for "the establishment and management of the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone" with 3,000 hectares (7,413 acres) designated as a duty-free SEZ.

The rest has been set aside for eco-tourism, with the government to share the profits with the developer.

Chinese investors have also built and run another sprawling casino complex at the northern Lao town of Boten bordering China.

At Boten, front desk hotel staff speak only Chinese, the Chinese yuan is the required currency of payment, and Chinese prostitutes peddle their services on business cards printed in Mandarin rather than Lao, said another Internet publication, Asia Times Online.

Outside the town of Huay Xai, the provincial capital of Bokeo on the bank of the Mekong River, Chinese cars travel without license plates, the report said.

Reported and translated by Max Avary of Radio Free Asia’s Lao service. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.

CH. 1: MANDARIN | CANTONESE

CH. 2: VIETNAMESE | BURMESE | KOREAN

CH. 3: KHMER | LAO | UYGHUR

CH. 4: TIBETAN

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