Australian gambling tycoon James Packer's Crown Ltd is facing months of new delays in building a planned $400 million Sri Lanka hotel and casino resort due to unspecified legal issues, a government minister said on Wednesday.
Packer, one of Australia's richest men, first obtained Sri Lanka cabinet approval for the project nearly a year ago. But terms of the approval were altered in the face of strong opposition from some Buddhist leaders and political parties, and construction on the project has yet to start.
"We have something to be sorted out from our legal side," Investment Promotion Minister Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena told Reuters in a telephone interview. He declined to say exactly what the legal matter is.
"There are some legal issues from our side once they paid the necessary fees for the land," Yapa said. "We have informed them to start the construction they have also some issues. It will take another two three months (to start)."
While Sri Lanka's parliament first approved the Crown development in April 25 without a casino, President Mahinda Rajapaksa's government said two weeks later it would not oppose a Crown casino if it is operated using an existing licence held by a local partner.
Packer's Sri Lankan partner, Ravi Wijeratne, who owns two casino licences was not immediately available for comments. Packer has been in discussion with Sri Lankan ministers and officials on hotel and entertainment investment options since February 2013.
Some analysts say the delay could last until the next presidential polls, which could be scheduled in January next year, as Rajapaksa seeks a third six-year term in office.
The government had earlier said casinos will be restricted to D.R. Wijewardena Mawatha, the area of Colombo where Crown has planned its hotel.
However, after strong opposition, the government said it has not designated any gaming zone in the country. The government has yet to clarify which state agency is authorised to issue casino licences and regulate the industry.
Sri Lanka's parliament has separately approved two other casino resort projects planned by local investors.
A $300 million resort called Queensbury being developed by Sri Lanka's Vallibel One Plc is expected to include a casino near Packer's planned complex. Meanwhile Sri Lanka's biggest conglomerate, John Keells Holdings Plc, has committed up to $850 million for a project with a casino in another part of Colombo called the Water Front. (Reuters)