When a man spends £3.7bn on a construction project, he is liable to expect it to open on time. So it was no surprise that Sheldon Adelson, chairman of Las Vegas Sands, one of the world’s biggest casino operators, sounded slightly vexed on June 23 when he formally opened the Marina Bay Sands hotel and casino complex in Singapore.
The opening party was lavish – with 2,500 guests and a performance by Diana Ross – but it was six months late: the complex had been scheduled to open last December at a cost of £2.4bn. To make things worse, the company is already locked into an embarrassing legal dispute with a group of lawyers who held the resort’s first convention. They claim the air-conditioning didn’t work and the lavatories wouldn’t flush.
After a night in the hotel, I can see why Adelson might be cross. The hotel boasts no fewer than five celebrity-chef restaurants, two of them – Santi and Guy Savoy – run by chefs whose original establishments each have three Michelin stars. But when I visited, the day after the opening, two were still being fitted out, as were two of the five bars, and four of the nine non-celebrity restaurants. The convention centre – a cool 1m sq ft – opened a couple of months ago, but neither of the two theatres is open, nor is the museum and art gallery. And while the shopping mall is taking money, with more than 300 shops promised – think Tiffany, Jimmy Choo and La Perla – many premises are yet to be occupied.
Clearly, then, this is a work in progress. And yet all the signs are that Adelson has backed a big winner at Marina Bay, one of two so-called integrated resorts that are opening this year as part of a Singapore government plan to help the island shed its international image as a nanny state that jails people for chewing gum.
According to Las Vegas Sands, visitor numbers have hit 25,000 a day, and a rise to 70,000 is forecast for next year when the resort is fully open. That translates to annual pre-tax profits of around £660m and a payback time of just five years or so. Singapore’s other new casino, opened in January on the offshore island of Sentosa by Genting, a Malaysian gaming and hotels group, is also doing well.
The two resorts represent an astonishing policy change by Singapore’s government. Lee Kuan Yew, founding prime minster of the city state, was initially opposed to casinos because of the link he perceived between gambling and crime. His views were endorsed as recently as 2002 by Lee Hsien Loong, the present prime minister and Kuan Yew’s eldest son.
But since then views have softened (though chewing gum is still hard to come by, nicotine or “therapeutic” chewing gum is permitted). Upmarket tourism has come to be seen as essential to Singapore’s continued economic growth as manufacturing, financial and port activities.
Economic success or not, the cultural strains imposed by the new policy are clearly visible in the casino. Make sure you have your passport with you if you’re visiting: to avoid an S$100 (£48) entry charge levied on Singaporean citizens and permanent residents, you have to prove you’re a foreign visitor. The charge, supposedly to deter gambling addiction, was introduced as a gesture to local protesters.
The high point of my stay – literally and emotionally – was the Skypark. I had been rather dismissive before I went up, jocularly likening the structure to a stranded boat, perched uncomfortably atop the three hotel towers by a freak incoming tide (it’s a comparison said to annoy Moshe Safdie, its architect).
I take it all back though. The view from the top is more than worth the ascent: you see Singapore laid out below you like a board game, the bay framed by the towers of the business district, the nicely preserved colonial quarter and the extraordinary East Coast park, a green strip running for more 20km up to Changi airport.
The Skypark platform is bigger than I expected – longer than the Eiffel Tower is tall, and greener than it looks in photographs, especially in the central section open only to hotel guests. Even from the public observation deck – it’s S$20 (£9.50) for an express lift to the top if you’re not a guest – you can see three countries: Singapore, of course, with the towers of Johor Bahru, capital of Malaysia’s Johor state, clearly visible across the narrow strip of water that divides the two countries, and Sumatra, the northern island of Indonesia, beckoning visitors from beyond the Strait of Malacca. And even if you don’t swim, you will find the Skypark’s infinity pool, which appears to overflow directly into the bay, 200m below, irresistible.
The Marina Bay Sands has views that match just about any city-centre hotel in the world, and that is as true of the bedrooms as the Skypark. My room’s floor-to-ceiling window looked out across the bay to the business district. The room was nicely proportioned, with a sofa, coffee table and an enormous bathroom. It had the usual light wood and beige furnishings of the 21st-century hotel, but with the lights from the high rises flashing and sparkling through the window, who cares what colour the sofa is?
I do have one complaint. Back in the room after visiting the casino, well-fed and mercifully free of casino losses, I decided to test the loo. It didn’t work. I thought briefly of a lawsuit, but decided to fix the flush instead. It’s not hard; you just reconnect the little hook on the plunger to the bottom of the lever on the lid. I may send Adelson a plumber’s bill, though.
Doubles from S$359 (£171), www.marinabaysands.com
Kevin Brown is the FT’s Asia regional correspondent