Navegante expands its operations

Jul 31, 2007 5:55 AM

Larry Woolf and his Navegante Group are expanding their sphere of gaming influence.

Last week, Nevada regulators gave Navegante the green light to operate the Sahara’s casino for its new owners, who are expected to close their deal this week.

At about the same time, Navegante was named as the casino operator for a hotel project planned off the coast of Taiwan. The 27-acre beachfront resort is being developed by three Scottish businessmen.

In Las Vegas, the Sahara is being purchased from the family of late casino pioneer Bill Bennett by a partnership comprised of Los Angeles-based SBE Entertainment Group and Stockbridge Real Estate Funds in San Francisco.

The sale price is reportedly between $300 million and $400 million.

Woolf, the former chief executive of the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, already operates four casinos in downtown Las Vegas, three casinos in Elko and the Casino Fandango in Carson City.

Navegante has a one-year deal to operate the casino for the Sahara’s new owners, with provisions to extend the lease.

Woolf told regulators he wasn’t planning any significant changes in the operation of the 85,000-square-foot casino and the existing employees would be retained.

In Taiwan, there’s no timetable for building the Penghu Island resort since gambling has not yet been legalized there.

But officials with Amazing Holdings — the company developing the resort — are optimistic the Taiwanese government will soon execute a tourism/gaming strategy.

"Things are moving along nicely, there is a lot of activity bubbling underneath in Southeast Asia and we felt the time was right to put down a marker," said Finance Director Ian Irvin. "Larry is an experienced operator and this shows our determination to build a world-class resort."

While gambling is not yet legal in Taiwan, plans are being developed as part of a government strategy to create a tourism industry. Singapore, renowned for its ultra-conservative policies, has now approved plans to legalize gambling in a limited form, giving the Taiwanese a further impetus to change the law.

Amazing Holdings is likely to be the first company to win a gambling license from the Taiwanese authorities and plans to use the experience of its board to help the authorities draft the gambling legislation.

Irwin said the strategy in Taiwan is to emulate the success of Macau. The city, which is only a short ferry trip from Hong Kong, has built a hugely successful gambling industry in the past decade and now rakes in more winnings than Las Vegas.

There are currently 1.3 million Taiwanese travelling to Macau every year to use the casinos, Irwin said, while a total of 10 million go on foreign trips specifically to gamble.

Thanks to the rise of the Chinese middle classes, tourism in Asia is also set to skyrocket over the next few years.

Irvin stresses that although he doesn’t want to take anything for granted, he believes they could see a change in the gambling laws before Chinese New Year, which takes place in February 2008.

"The only place where there is any sizeable gaming in Southeast Asia is Macau and some of the numbers that are coming out of there are frankly staggering," Irwin said. "It is hard to get your head round it. Macau has already outstripped Las Vegas in terms of gaming revenue."

The tourist-oriented Penghu Islands lie just below the Tropic of Cancer in the Taiwan Strait.