New Casino A Safe Bet, Owner Says

The man who plans to build the $100 million Nexus Naga resort casino in Phnom Penh said Wed­nes­day he anticipates no problems, despite a 1999 government ban on casinos within the city. 

Chen Lip Keong says he has a deal with the government, signed in 1994, guaranteeing him the right to build and run a high-end casino here. That agreement convinced a court last year to allow one of his companies, Malaysia-based Ariston Sdn Bhd, to continue operating the Naga Floating Casino despite that ban.

And though neither Ariston nor the Cambodian government have so far lived up to some aspects of the agreement, Chen Lip Keong said he is committed to making it work.

“We are bona-fide long-term investors in this country,’’ he said. “Phnom Penh has great tourist potential. In the long run, we believe we can make money.’’

News of Ariston’s plans for the casino and 750-room hotel, to be located south of the Hotel Sofitel Cambodiana about 500 meters from the floating casino, broke Tuesday before the company had completed all arrangements.

Chen Lip Keong said he has not yet spoken with Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara, who has opposed casino development in the city and who has plans for a “greenway” park running south from the Cambo­diana to the Monivong Bridge.

But, he said, his $1 million deal for the site with the Khov Chuly Development Ltd specifies that an international-standard hotel can be built on the site.

As for the casino part of the equation, Chen Lip Keong, speaking in an elaborate salon aboard the Naga, patted an 8-inch thick legal document signed in 1994 by Ariston and government officials.

The document, he said, guarantees Ariston the exclusive right to build and operate “the finest casino in Asia’’ in Cambodia. In exchange, Ariston has promised to invest $1.3 billion in the Sihanoukville area.

Chen Lip Keong says Ariston remains ready to do so. “What I have signed, I will deliver. But it takes two to clap.’’

In the 1994 agreement, Ariston agreed to complete a $60 million airport expansion, a $75 million island resort, and a $30 million golf resort in Sihanoukville, as well as expanding the electric power plant.

In 1996, the government ac­cused Ariston of foot-dragging. Chen Lip Keong says the company was hamstrung because the government could not deliver a clear title to the land.

“I have a lot of respect for this government. But if they cannot deliver, I am impotent,’’ he said. “Naga has operated professionally here,’’ and the law is important to Malaysians, he said. “I expect it to be honored. We are bound by the terms of this agreement.’’



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