Macau mogul Lawrence Ho's gaming firm signed an agreement Friday to invest $600 million in a giant casino project in Manila, boosting the Philippines' bid to join the world's gambling big leagues.
The investment in the Belle Grande integrated gaming resort is Melco Crown Entertainment's first venture in the casino business outside its Macau base, Ho told a news conference.
"We're very excited about our project. We think that the Philippines is one of the fastest-growing and most exciting countries around," Ho said before overseeing the signing of the deal with Philippine billionaire Henry Sy.
Ho's Melco Crown partner James Packer, an Australian billionaire, was also in Manila for the signing of the joint venture agreement with Sy-controlled Belle Corp, which is building the casino.
It is set to open by mid-2014 inside a giant complex along Manila Bay called Entertainment City.
Belle Corp. was one of four firms given franchises by the Philippine government to build gaming resorts worth at least $1 billion each at the 100-hectare (247-acre) site.
The first of the four casinos, $1.2 billion Solaire, opens for business on Saturday.
After Solaire and Belle Grande, two other casinos -- one controlled by Japanese tycoon Kazuo Okada and the other by Malaysia's Genting Group -- are set to open between 2015 and 2017.
The Philippine government is hoping Entertainment City can draw millions of newly wealthy Asians, boosting tourism and eventually generating up to $10 billion in annual revenues.
"For the next probably 30-50 years the main growth in entertainment and gaming is going to be in Asia," said Ho, co-chairman and chief executive of Melco Crown.
"We think our Philippine venture is going to be a key contributor to our business," he added.
"This is definitely a city where people love to enjoy and live life."
Ho said he was impressed by Solaire's offerings during a visit Friday on the eve of its launch, adding the clustering of rivals in a single hub would help both draw more customers.
Ho expects gaming revenues in the Philippines to triple to $3 billion by 2015, from about $1 billion annually.
"If you project that and extrapolate it even further down the road, the Philippines in five, six years could be effectively the size of Las Vegas or Singapore," he said, referring to the world's other major gaming hubs.
As the only one among the planned or existing Manila casinos with a Macau connection, Ho said Belle Grande would draw more Chinese tourists to the Philippines.
"Ultimately, we do have one of the largest databases in terms of Chinese and also Asian visitors... I think that's going to be a significant contributor to our success," he said.
Ho said he was not worried about potential fallout from a tense territorial dispute between China and the Philippines over islands and waters in the South China Sea.
"Hopefully these issues will resolve themselves in the near future," he said.