New hand dealt for island casino

On the smoky second floor of the Grand Andaman resort, hundreds of people crowd around 44 gaming tables. They are betting on card games like Dragon Tiger, a straight forward affair where people place bets on whether the card in the Dragon or in the Tiger square turns up higher.

While the patrons are mainly Thai, they have taken the trip to another country to try their luck. The idea periodically surfaces to legalise casinos in Thailand, though in June, Thai leader Prayuth Chan-o-cha again slammed the lid on casino legislation talk, according to the Bangkok Post.

This leads many Thais to places like Grand Andaman, just outside its borders. The resort is on Thahtay Island, off the southern tip of Tanintharyi Region in Myanmar, a few kilometres by boat from the Thai city of Ranong. While the resort is open – indeed, welcoming – of Myanmar people, they are not allowed into the gaming area, according to company officials.

The island itself has the air of a set from a James Bond film. Grand Andaman – formerly Andaman Club – is the only occupant on the 1800-acre (728-hectare) island, which otherwise is mostly devoted to green space.

Visiting requires hopping on regularly scheduled shuttle boats from Thailand and less frequent trips over from Myanmar. Arrivals are met by vans at the jetty and driven up a green hill to the impressive main building. From there, many people do not even check in at the front desk, but head straight to the gaming rooms, which include the upstairs card tables as well as the downstairs slot machines and electronic roulette tables.

Yet company officials say they are charting a new direction for Grand Andaman.

The resort was Thai-owned since its inception about 20 years ago, though it changed about six months ago to Myanmar hands. The new owners want to do more with the resort, broadening appeal of its activities.

Owner U Kyaw Lwin said the proximity of Phuket, a well-known Thai tourist destination boasting a range of modern facilities, makes for tough competition.

Instead of building a Phuket-style resort on the island, U Kyaw Lwin reckons more can be made out of its natural beauty.

“Other countries have better infrastructure,” he said in an interview in the hotel’s lobby. “I want to keep the island natural.”

Still, it will be no small task. U Kyaw Lwin said the previous owners had put relatively little into the project since opening it. The golf course now lies fallow, and other planned projects such as eco-tourism will require investment in the years ahead.

In part, U Kyaw Lwin will be helped by declining petrol prices.

The whole resort is powered by generators, requiring fuel to be shipped to the island regularly. Prices have declined significantly over the past year, assisting the bottom line, while costs of fuel had been a higher burden on the former ownership.

The previous Thai owners had not been keen to sell, but had been forced due to losses in other businesses, including an airline, he said. The tight fiscal space also kept them from improving Grand Andaman by broadening its appeal to areas such as eco-tourism.

“Before, the owners didn’t have this focus. Now, this has all changed,” he said.

The resort will now promote other activities, such as scuba diving, bird watching and all-terrain vehicle (ATV) driving in a bid to attract a more diverse array of customers.

U Kyaw Lwin says he is new to the hotel business, claiming a background in oil and gas, though he did not discuss this further. He also declined to discuss the gaming aspect of the resort, other than claiming to have the necessary permits, but added that high season is about a month from starting, the first full high season for which Grand Andaman will be under Myanmar ownership.

Visiting the islands, as well as the nearby Myeik Archipelago, is only now becoming popular among Myanmar people, he said. The islands have drawn a reputation as a largely unspoiled corner of the country, with several developments planned but relatively few operating.

Grand Andaman is also far from the only facility in Myanmar with a casino targeting foreigners. The area around Mong La in Shan State on the border with China may be the most infamous, lying beyond direct control of Nay Pyi Taw. Several more casinos are planned or under way near other border crossings, while developers have also sought to build in the Myeik island.

In May, officials from Singaporean Zochwell Group told The Myanmar Times they were preparing to sign a build, operate, transfer (BOT) contract with the Tanintharyi Region government for a US$1.2 billion LuxDream Island project branded “the next Phuket”, to include a high-end marina, luxury hotels, a theme park and a casino.

The LuxDream Island project on Salon Island is much further north than Grand Andaman, however.

Keeping Grand Andaman’s Thahtay Island largely undeveloped will assist it with fitting into the draw of Myeik, which is often celebrated for its pristine condition. U Kyaw Lwin said he is working to receive permission to land yachts on the island, hoping to tap into an anticipated increase in the number of ships bearing tourists north to the archipelago.

“Our island hasn’t undergone many modern renovations, but this is an attraction,” he said. “Tourism sites in other countries are more developed, but natural sites like ours are drawing more tourists.”

Still, drawing eco-tourists will not be easy. Part of the challenge is to make it easy for foreign tourists to visit, as well as ensuring security, according to U Kyaw Lwin.

Myanmar visitors are also an untapped market. Prohibited from entering the gaming zone, they can nonetheless stay on the island and visit the area. Popular music acts have also been brought to the island to attract more guests.

Visiting nature is still becoming popular among locals, but has lots of future potential.

“I don’t want to build the whole island as a resort,” he said.

Source: Myanmar Times

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