S’pore: A long way from Vegas

Patrick Barta
The Wall Street Journal

casinoSingapore may be Asia’s newest casino capital. But it’s a long way from Las Vegas.

Wall Street Journal reporter Patrick Barta recently toured the city-state’s two gigantic new casinos—at Resorts World Sentosa and Marina Bay Sands—and left in no doubt that Singapore is offering something different than the wild life of Vegas or some other gambling cities. What’s missing: flashing lights, free-flowing booze and a lot of the other energy sources that make Vegas an intoxicating place for many visitors—and intolerable for others. In their place, visitors will find plenty of family-friendly activities and shopping, as well as a touch of high-concept design, much of it still under construction.

Leaders of the famously strict city-state have vowed to attract an international jet-set clientele and families without the social ills that often come with gaming. Whether they’ll be able to keep out criminals and problem gamblers in the long run is an open question, but so far, strong visitor numbers suggest there’s a market for the more-subdued gaming environment Singaporean leaders envisioned.

Unlike in Vegas, with its free drinks for gamblers, getting a cocktail in a Singapore casino can be a chore. By the blackjack tables in the $4.4 billion Resorts World Sentosa complex one recent Saturday night, my requests for a cold beer drew blank stares and confusion from some staff members, with one suggesting it would be easier for me to fetch a drink myself from a bar in another part of the casino. A cocktail waitress was eventually persuaded to run one down for five Singapore dollars (US$3.83), and staff say free drinks are available for high rollers.

“It’s kind of a clean version” of a normal casino, said Dimitri, a 30-year-old visitor from France who declined to provide his last name. As his companions grumbled over the lack of free cocktails, he said “Maybe it’s not possible to have a great casino in a city like Singapore.”

The casino, nevertheless, was jam-packed, and its patrons—including many Chinese, Malaysian and other Asian gamblers, as well as a smattering of Western expatriates—seemed too intent on rolling the dice to worry much about a lack of booze. The same is also often true in Macau, Asia’s other gaming capital, and may reflect how gambling tastes in Asia differ from those in the West.

Singapore’s government discourages locals from squandering money on gambling by making them pay an extra S$100 levy to enter, so the casinos strictly check IDs. Showing up at the Marina Bay Sands casino without my passport, I was turned away, and allowed in only after I made the 10-minute trip back to my hotel room to fetch it.

Resorts World Sentosa, on Sentosa island just off of Singapore, is certainly the more family-oriented of the two new casino properties, with a Universal Studios theme park (sold out on my recent visit) and lots of shops, including some common in high-end airport duty-free zones such as Ralph Lauren and Tumi. There’s a Hershey’s chocolate shop and a Chili’s restaurant, though there are several celebrity-chef restaurants, too.

From its several hotels, I picked the Hard Rock, whose music-world paraphernalia includes a mirrored army-style helmet once worn by Gene Simmons and a red, white and blue furry hat from the 20th-anniversary tour of the heavy metal-band Poison.

Though the hotel’s opening came early this year, the lobby area was a work in progress, with duct tape on the floor and a small work crew chiseling away with a power drill. A sign said, “We Rockers seek your patience as we fine-tune our product.”

The room was pleasant if already a bit frayed at the edges, with wallpaper seams peeling open. (In one spot it appeared to be covering a large chunk of extraneous wallboard that moved around when pressed.). The decor was 1960s-style mod, with a chandelier and purple walls, dressed up with black-and-white photos of Jimi Hendrix. Toiletries were encased in a mock guitar case.

Wallpaper aside, kinks were still being worked out. A welcome note from the front-office manager, left discreetly in my room, was addressed to a “Mr. Phang” and wished him “a ROCKIN good stay.”

Children with inflatable rafts wandered the dark hallways, and the outdoor pool was jammed with kids chasing one another around a fake sand beach and splashed water while the Doors’ “Riders on the Storm” played nearby.

Some design elements are especially perplexing. A giant gym with glass windows is located along a main hallway connecting the lobby to the pool and other parts of Resorts World, forcing guests to exercise in front of passersby.

The casino itself is decorated with elaborate glass sculptures but has little of the flash and buzz of a typical Vegas casino floor. And though a beer may take some work to get, gamblers can help themselves to free coffee, tea and bottled water.

A spokesperson, saying Resorts World Sentosa is still “putting the finishing touches” on the resort, apologized for inconveniences caused by efforts to upgrade. The resort’s broader scale and strategy—which involves so many family activities—is “unprecedented in this part of the world, and we believe it to be the next model that other countries or regions may start adopting,” said Robin Goh, assistant director of communications. “We believe that it will change the tourism blueprint for Singapore and Southeast Asia.”

The Marina Bay Sands, Singapore’s other new mega-casino, feels a bit more like the kind of place James Bond would visit. The vertiginous lobby features a musical quartet, modern art murals, posh dining areas and fewer children, though there are some.

The room I stayed in, while modest, was stylish with light-colored wood paneling and 1950s-modernist furnishings in earth tones.

The 150-meter long infinity pool, on the 57th-floor roof, is Singapore’s newest spectacle, with panoramic views of the skyline. Swimmers wade at the edge while a DJ spins a dance mix behind a row of trees and white cushioned-chairs. It’s as if Miami’s South Beach had been airlifted onto a platform above Singapore.

But Marina Bay has its issues, too. The pool was too narrow and crowded for serious swimming. A large percentage of the swimmers were guests standing around taking pictures of themselves. The poolside menu is limited, with no coffee during my recent visit, which made it a lot less attractive for reading the morning paper, though a Marina Bay spokesperson later said the hotel intends to expand the menu.

Staff at the resort sometimes struggled to cope with the crush of people. A room key is required for free admission, but a malfunction during my visit forced staff members to run cards through the reader over and over while guests waited. “It’s because we have very ancient technology,” one said.

Problems also popped up at checkout, with only two attendants on hand to handle a long queue of impatient guests. One man got angry and began shouting at staff to hurry up.

A Marina Bay Sands spokesperson said “we continue to do our best to ensure that situations commonplace in all new operations are minimized and resolved promptly,” and added, “the overwhelming majority of our guests had no complaints and, in fact, we received numerous positive guest comments.”

The casino is visually impressive, with a gaming hall whose ceilings soar several stories high. But visitors on my night there said they thought the open plan drains some of the life from the gaming areas. Like its Resorts World counterpart, it’s low on shouting, high-fiving and flashing lights—the essence of Vegas. Marina Bay’s casino feels more like an amphitheater or airport arrival hall.

Smoke is another problem: The open design allowed cigarette plumes to waft right into nonsmoking areas. The Marina Bay Sands spokesperson said the casino’s design aims to strike a balance between smokers and nonsmokers and that it has added elements to limit smoke drift.

I took a small and informal survey of my fellow visitors and found that most preferred the hotel at Marina Bay Sands but the gaming tables at Resorts World, despite its kid-intense atmosphere and (during my visit) much higher minimum bets. (At Resorts World, S$25 and up for blackjack and other games, versus S$5 at some Marina Bay Sands tables.) But Resorts World, they said, had less smoke and more-serious gamblers.


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