Imperial Pacific International Holdings (01076.HK) is trying to get the United States government to ease the visa limits for overseas workers in Saipan as the firm seeks to boost the staff strength at its casino-resort on the island.
“There is a cap of 12,999 workers for the transitional commonwealth-only worker-1 (or CW-1) program. We are dealing with the US federal government, trying to get that lifted to 18,000, or 20,000,” Mark A. Brown, chief executive of Imperial Pacific, told EJ Insight in an interview.
“We have 3,000 employees for our first building and we are going to have as many as 15,000 employees in future,” said Brown, whose firm holds a 40-year gaming license in Saipan Island in the western Pacific Ocean.
The increase in quota is necessary as Filipino workers who have been working in Saipan for many years have no homes to go back to in their home country.
Brown said that Imperial Pacific has hired a lot of contract workers from the Philippines as they are more experienced in Macau-style VIP gaming than personnel from Las Vegas.
Last October, the US government, which administers Saipan, announced that it was lowering the cap for the CW-1 program by 1,000 to 12,999 foreign workers in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) for fiscal year 2016.
The target was met in May this year.
Under the current law, the number of non-immigrant workers under the CW-1 program will be decreased every year until it reaches zero by the end of 2019. However, employers and workers are urging authorities to increase the quota and extend the CW-1 program beyond 2019.
Some Filipino worker groups are calling for the grant of US citizenship to many of the long-term foreign workers in the CNMI, pointing out that it will ensure that the workers can continue to contribute to the local tourism industry.
Congressmen in Washington D.C. must be made aware of issues related to Saipan, as the island requires a huge workforce for the construction and tourism sectors, Brown said.
In August 2014, Imperial Pacific’s wholly-owned unit Best Sunshine beat two rivals to win a sole 40-year gaming license in Saipan, which is the second largest of the Mariana Islands after Guam.
The company said it will build a casino and hotel complex in a US$7.1 billion project. The resort was originally named the Grand Mariana Resort, but is now called the Imperial Pacific Resort.
Annual fee for the gaming license is US$15 million. Another US$20 million of tax will be charged annually when the company puts up its second building.
“An annual fee of US$35 million is nothing, compared with the 39 percent gaming tax in Macau,” Brown said. “This is why our business model is very profitable.”
Imperial Pacific Resort’s casino, which includes 250 gaming tables and 450 slot machines, is scheduled to have its grand opening on Jan. 28, 2017, the first day of the Chinese New Year. A 374-suite hotel will open three months later. The resort is being designed by Steelman Partners LLP.
Prior to this, the company launched a temporary gaming facility in July 2015. The facility includes 32 mass gaming tables, six premium mass tables, seven VIP tables and 106 slot machines. It now has an average rolling of about US$2 billion per month.
During the six months ended June this year, Imperial Pacific recorded revenue of HK$3.99 billion (US$513 million). That compares with almost zero revenue a year ago. The continuing operations made a net profit of HK$837.6 million in the first half, compared with a loss of HK$143.9 million a year earlier.
Hotel rooms and staff apartments
There are only 2,800 hotel rooms in Saipan, with more than a thousand still under construction. The rooms remain fully occupied all around the year.
Brown says the biggest challenge for the company now is that there are not enough hotel rooms for visitors and that there is also a shortage of housing units for the firm’s employees.
The employees include 3,000 staff and another 2,000 construction workers.
Given the shortage of rooms, Imperial Pacific converted some private homes for use as guest villas and also purchased five yachts to serve the VIP visitors. The company also bought some additional sites for expansion.
After the opening of its first resort next year, the company will plan for the second phase of the property, which will include 1,200 hotel rooms, multiple shopping facilities and a convention center.
The second phase is expected to start construction in 2018 and open in 2019, Brown said.
Saipan is not in direct competition with Macau but it is an alternative to the latter, says the gaming company executive.
“We never said that we are going to compete with Macau. We want to be a second stop outside Macau,” Brown said. “If people do not want to go to Macau, they can go to Saipan.”
Saipan provides visitors a safer environment than other Asian cities that have gaming facilities as it is a US territory, he said.
With the launch of a direct flight between Hong Kong and Saipan in July, more and more Chinese tourists will visit the island, according to him.
Despite a cap in the number of tables and a slowing Chinese economy, Macau’s gaming sector will continue to do very well, especially given that many new facilities and a city-rail system will come in the territory soon, he said, adding that “Macau will always be the king”.
With over 30-year experience in the gaming industry, Brown had worked for NagaWorld and Sands Macau, as well as Trump Entertainment Resorts, which is controlled by the US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.
“Donald Trump created my career, supported me and my family. He is a part of my family and a huge piece of my life… he was like a mentor in my life,” Brown said.
“He acts like crazy in front of the camera but I know what he is like behind the scene. When the camera goes off and the door shuts, he always thinks carefully and listens to others,” Brown said. “How could I not vote for him?”
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