Chen Lip Keong is described as Malaysia’s “accidental casino billionaire”. Perhaps accidental is a strong word, but when Chen first invested in a casino license in 1994, he was not a gambler.
In fact, Chen Lip Keong says he had been in a casino maybe twice in his lifetime until then. He went to Genting Highlands on a date in the 1970s, then visited the Las Vegas Strip once as a tourist after that.
The head of NagaCorp, which owns casinos Cambodia, said in a recent Forbes interview, “[Casinos are] not in my blood; I’m not a gambler.”
That is only literally true. When he invested in a Cambodian casino, it was by no means a sure success. Chen Lip Keong took a gamble that Cambodia’s tourist trade would grow into the kind of volume that would justify a casino. Decades later, Chen’s investment has paid for itself many times, but only because the tourist trade has grown by a factor of 50 over the past 25 years.
As Macau and Singapore have grown into the biggest and 3rd-biggest gambling destinations in the world, NagaCorp has built it own legacy in Cambodia. After years of living in the shadow of those more famous casino destinations, NagaCorp now has a resort which is every bit the wonder that one might find in other Asian gaming capitals.
NagaWorld Phnom Phen
The flagship property for NagaCorp is NagaWorld, a casino-resort located in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The original NagaWorld casino boasts a 1,700-room hotel, 5,000 gaming machines, and 600 gaming tables. It’s a table game layout that would make the multi-billion dollar integrated resorts on the Cotai Strip jealous (MGM Cotai recently received 100 gaming tables).
Last November, Chen Lip Keong invested another $392 million to build Nega2, an expansion found across the street from NagaWorld. Naga2 has two hotel towers: one for mass market players and one for VIP high rollers.
Naga2 Casino Expansion
Naga2 has hundreds more gaming tables and thousands more gaming machines, plus a theater and convention center which seats thousands. The resort has in-room gaming. The two halves of NagaWorld are connected via an underground mall, so gamblers and shoppers alike do not have to deal with traffic.
Naga2 has turned NagaWorld into a notable Asian gaming resort, on a par with anything found in Macau or Singapore. Forbes said, “The addition makes Cambodia and NagaWorld first-rank contenders in Asia’s $51 billion casino market.”
Cambodia’s Booming Economy
Since his 1994 investment in the original NagaWorld casino, Cambodia’s economy has expanded by 7.5%. Despite Chen Lip Keong’s designation as an accidental casino mogul, the investment required vision.
Cambodia welcomed 118,163 tourists in 1993. Last year, it welcomed 5.6 million tourists. By the year 2020, that number will rise to 7 million. Tourism is now 12% of the Cambodian economy.
NagaWorld’s Tourist Trade
NagaWorld has had a tremendous hand in that tourism trade. Forbes estimates that 25% of Cambodia’s tourists visit the NagaWorld resort each year. It’s both a gambling destination and a landmark, though Mr. Chen is quick to point out his vision for Cambodian operations.
The Malaysian casino executive said, “Gambling is a means to achieve a certain purpose and that purpose is tourism….We try not to build monuments: We build jobs and contribute to socioeconomic development. We have contributed to tourism growth, raised the international investment profile, attracted FDI [foreign direct investment] and are the biggest taxpayer in the country.”
One Hill, One Tiger
Chen Lip Keong had vision of another kind. When he secured his 70-year casino license in Phnom Penh, he got a 40-year casino monopoly with a 200-kilometer radius. Despite the huge growth, NagaWorld does not have to anticipate a rival casino in the city for another 20 years.
When asked about the monopoly, Chen replied with a Chinese quote: “On the same hill, you cannot have two tigers.”