BY LINDSAY MURDOCH: Singapore, Wednesday – A close business associate of the youngest son of Indonesia’s President, Mr Suharto, is preparing to open a A$62 million luxury casino resort on the remote Australian territory of Christmas Island where Asian gamblers will be able to come and go without visas.
Canberra’s decision to give visa exemptions to invited guests of the casino built on the island, 2400 kilometres north-west of Perth, is unprecedented.
It is aimed at encouraging big-spending punters from Indonesia, where most forms of gambling are prohibited and Mr Suharto is coming under increasing pressure from Islamic groups to close a state-run lottery.
Next month an Australian property developer, Mr Frank Woodmore, will celebrate with his Indonesian partners the realisation of a 10-year dream to cash in on South-East Asia’s gamblers.
Years behind schedule, the Christmas Island casino resort will be officially opened on 18 December, although an average 50 customers a night are already playing at its tables.
“We are in soft-opening phase … you can still smell the paint,” Mr Woodmore said by telephone from the resort on a cliff overlooking a man-made beach and lagoon.
Mr Woodmore is coy about discussing his partners in the $62 million project to inject new life into the island six years after the Federal Government closed its phosphate mine, the only significant industry.
He refers vaguely to “sensitivities” in Indonesia, only 400 kilometres to the north, whose 180 million people are predominantly Muslim. Gambling by Muslim Indonesians is a highly charged issue. In recent weeks thousands of people have protested across the country against the lottery.
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The Government indicated it might be prepared to bow to the public pressure and scrap it. In 1981 Mr Suharto closed three casinos operating in the country after protests by Islamic groups.
An Indonesian businessman, Mr Atang Latief, who owns 27 per cent of the Christmas Island resort, was a shareholder in one of the casinos that was forced to close. Mr Atang is said to have brought in as another island investor Mr Robby Sumanpow, who now owns the resort’s biggest shareholding, 63 per cent.
Mr Sumanpow, an East Javanese, is well connected in Indonesia. Among his close friends are the former armed forces commander, Mr Benny Murdani, and Mr Hutomo “Tommy” Mandala Putra, 31, the youngest son of the President.
Mr Hutomo, who was recently rated by a business magazine the 13th wealthiest indigenous Indonesian, partly owns PT Sempati Air, an airline that plans to ferry gamblers from Indonesia to Christmas Island. It is already operating Fokker F-28 flights from Jakarta several times a week, competing with Ansett Airlines, which makes the four-hour flight from Perth and charter flights from Singapore.
Mr Sumanpow has been the marketing director of Indonesia’s clove-trading monopoly, which is chaired by Mr Hutomo.
In an interview in the Jakarta-based magazine `Tempo’, Mr Sumanpow was quoted as saying of the new casino’s remote location: “I’m sure that gamblers like moving from place to place, because gambling is a matter of life and death for them.”
Mr Woodmore, of Perth, describes himself as a minority investor with 10 per cent ownership of the resort, although the idea to establish the casino to lure gamblers from South-East Asia, particularly Indonesia and Singapore, was originally his. The nearest legal casinos to Indonesia are in Perth and Kuala Lumpur.
Mr Woodmore complained about a report in the Hong Kong-based `Asian Wall Street Journal’ on the casino’s Indonesian connections. “It did us some damage although it was all correct. We don’t mind what is published in Australia about it,” he said.
The Australian Government decided this month to waive the need for guests invited to the Christmas Island casino to be issued visas. This will allow players from Indonesia to stay up to five days without undergoing normal immigration procedures.
Once on Christmas Island, there are no other immigration checks to other Australian destinations, such as Perth, but an the onus will be on the casino to ensure that its guests do not travel to other parts of Australia.
The spokesman said the visa exemptions were introduced to allow Indonesians to travel to the casino on impulse. They would end in March. Christmas Island’s future is in many ways staked on the spin of the roulette wheel. A Federal Government report in 1990 warned that the island needed tourism to save it from a future of welfare handouts.
The resort will employ more than 150 locals. The casino project has been something of a headache for Mr Woodmore. There was a long legal battle with builders, shutdowns partly in response to the Western Australian Gaming Board’s decision to inquire into the suitability of the project’s backers to hold a casino licence, and problems associated with building a luxury resort in such an isolated place.
Mr Woodmore is gambling on up to 10 flights a week arriving on the island with an average of 50 passengers. He talks enthusiastically about the island’s other attractions, such as the annual crab invasion and deep-sea fishing.
THE AGE (MELBOURNE) 18/11/93 P1
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