Saipan casino operator Imperial Pacific International (IPI) wants to start offering online gambling, because it doesn’t already have enough unfinished projects on its plate at the moment.
On Wednesday, the House of Representatives of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) held a public hearing on HB 21-31, which would authorize each of the CNMI’s three senatorial districts (including Saipan) the option of establishing online gambling operations, which would be overseen by the Commonwealth Casino Commission (CCC).
The House Gaming Committee approved the bill in April, but the bill was returned to the committee after the CNMI Attorney General’s office expressed concerns over the bill’s “practical implications and enforcement challenges.” Other CNMI politicians expressed unease that the legislation was advancing without any public hearings on the controversial subject.
On Wednesday, the committee held its first public hearing, and CCC exec director Edward C. Deleon Guerrero expressed concern about who will be allowed to access CNMI-licensed gambling sites. The CNMI is a US commonwealth, and US-licensed online gambling operations aren’t allowed to accept international customers.
Deleon Guererro also asked the committee to clarify whether the bill would permit multiple online licensees or restrict online operations to an exclusive provider. Since IPI is Saipan’s only licensed casino operator, the bill could end up being yet another gift to the perpetually struggling IPI.
IPI’s on-again/off-again CEO Mark Brown appeared at the hearing to ensure that committee members understood that his company was “very pro-online gaming.” The Marianas Variety quoted Brown saying he was only there as an observer while simultaneously stating for the record that IPI was “very much in favor of online gaming.”
Deleon Guererro noted that IPI’s chairman had informed him that IPI was “ready and willing to do” online gambling, even if it “will require some investment on their part.” Said investment will prove a little easier now that the company has found itself a $500m sugar daddy in Japanese real estate and financial products firm GCM Ltd.
The larger question is whether IPI is equipped to add yet another dimension to its already overburdened to-do list. The company recently sought yet another deadline extension for completing its Imperial Palace resort, even as it seeks to assume control of the mothballed Mariana Resort & Spa, a task that was supposed to be done by mid-May but seems no closer to completion.
IPI’s existing casino operations – which booked a net loss of $378m last year – may face additional challenges from the ongoing US-China trade war. This week, China’s Ministry of Culture & Tourism warned Chinese citizens not to travel to the US, based on the “frequent occurrence of shootings, robberies and theft.” The warning is in effect until December 31.
Given that the CNMI is part of the US, and IPI’s casino operations depend almost wholly on Chinese gamblers, some CNMI pols have expressed concern that IPI – and the overall CNMI tourism industry – will be up the creek if the Chinese advisory is strictly enforced.