MANILA, Philippines - The Philippines makes its biggest bet this weekend in a high-stakes bid to join the world's elite gaming destinations, with the launch of a $1.2-billion casino on Manila Bay.
Solaire Manila Resorts is the first of four enormous entertainment venues slated to rise over a giant chunk of prime, reclaimed land that industry and government leaders expect will attract millions of cashed-up Asian tourists.
"What Solaire brings is an entertainment and gaming experience that doesn't exist in the Philippines today," its American chief operating officer, Michael French, told AFP in an interview this week ahead of Saturday's opening.
"It will be like going to Las Vegas. This raises the scale, the excitement and the... glamour."
Controlled by billionaire Philippine port operator Enrique Razon, Solaire has 300 gaming tables, 1,200 slot machines and seven restaurants. The building also has 500 hotel rooms and 2,000 parking slots.
It features glass ceilings filtering abundant tropical sunlight, huge chandeliers, thick red-themed carpets, blown glass wall-to-ceiling panels, water pools and an army of cocktail waitresses in tiny red dresses.
Another wing is being built to add 300 all-suite hotel rooms, 30-40 high-end shops and a theatre where French plans to host travelling Broadway shows as well as local and foreign lounge acts.
Meanwhile, preparations are underway for the launch of the three other big-ticket casinos, which all involve major foreign backers. The four will together make up "Entertainment City", located near Manila's airport.
The Belle Grande -- a joint venture with the Philippines' richest man, Henry Sy, Australian billionaire James Packer and Macau gaming tycoon Lawrence Ho -- is slated to open next year, with its golden facade already having been built.
Japanese gambling magnate Kazuo Okada and Malaysia's Genting Group are involved in the other two, each in partnership with local Chinese-Filipino tycoons. Both are expected to open between 2015 and 2017.
Cristino Naguiat, head of state regulator Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp, told AFP he expected Philippine gaming revenues to double this year to $2 billion because of the Solaire opening.
When all four are open, Entertainment City is expected to boost the country's annual gaming revenues up to $10 billion, he said.
The nation's existing gambling revenues come from 13 relatively small casinos around the country run by Pagcor, the gaming regulator, and a bigger one in Manila run by Genting and a Filipino tycoon that opened in 2009.
While Macau counts $38 billion in annual revenues, Naguiat is confident the Philippines will eventually have one of the biggest gambling industries in the world, comparing it with the Las Vegas strip's roughly $6-billion turnover.
"We will beat Las Vegas. I'm pretty sure of that," he said.
Naguiat said the casinos were mainly targetting gamblers from Asia, pointing out that Manila was a mere 3-4 hours away by plane from from any point in China, Japan and South Korea, where many of the world's high rollers live.
"Actually it's a no-brainer. The big market is here in Asia," he said.
Naguiat said that to make it easier for the foreign gamblers, a skyway roadlink to Manila airport is due to open in two years that will allow them to avoid the city's notorious gridlock and reach Entertainment City in just five minutes.
The government has further sweetened the offer by taking just 27 percent in taxes off winnings for normal gamblers, compared with Macau's 40 percent, according to Naguiat.
High rollers have it even better, with winnings taxed at just 15 percent.
Naguiat said he saw Entertainment City as the key to the government's ambitious bid to attract 10 million tourists a year and create more jobs in a country where a fourth of the workforce is unemployed or underemployed.
About 4.6 million tourists visited the country last year, compared with about 14 million for Singapore and 28 million for Macau.
He said Entertainment City should easily employ 40,000 Filipinos when all four venues are open.
More than 50,000 Filipinos, some of them among nine million working in other countries, applied for 4,500 Solaire jobs last year, according to French.
About 400 Filipino expatriates were brought back, including Filipino dealers and pit bosses from casinos in Macau and Singapore who were given managerial posts.
Others were chefs and hotel staff, including more than 20 from the Emirates Palace of Abu Dhabi, touted as the world's most opulent hotel.
However the casinos are stirring controversy in the mainly Roman Catholic nation, with critics saying the government's embrace of gambling to solve the country's financial woes is a dangerous signal.
"It gives false hope to people that they can find solutions to their financial problems by gambling," Catholic priest Rolly Flores, whose Our Lady of Sorrows church lies three kilometres (less than two miles) away, told AFP.
"Only gambling lords thrive when people lose money by gambling."