VLADIVOSTOK, Russia — The sleepy port town of Vladivostok in Russia’s Far East, which was a closed-off military enclave during the Soviet era, is seeking to reinvent itself as an exclusive casino resort.
Last autumn, a casino complex opened in a new gaming zone just outside the city. A new theater, an art museum and other facilities are also being built in a bid to transform the city into an entertainment hub for wealthy tourists from China and other neighboring countries.
Investors are betting on the wilds of the Siberian forest being turned into an East Asian answer to Las Vegas.
The new casino complex, the Tigre de Cristal, is a 30-minute drive from Vladivostok International Airport. The lavish glass building is Hong Kong and Macau gambling tycoon Lawrence Ho’s first foray into the Russian city.
Chief operating officer Craig Ballantyne says the city’s location was the crucial factor in the decision to open the complex there. Vladivostok is less than three hours’ flight from Tokyo, Beijing and Seoul.
Casino gambling is banned in Russia in all but five designated areas which were set up in an attempt to revive flagging local economies.
Since it opened in October last year, the Tigre de Cristal, which also has a luxury hotel and restaurants, has attracted more than 80,000 tourists from Russia and overseas.
The government-supported plan to turn Vladivostok, the largest city in Primorsky Territory and the entire Russian Far East, into a vibrant gaming destination involves building a further 10 casino-hotel complexes, shopping malls and a yacht club by 2020.
At the beginning of the year, the Mariinsky Theatre opened the Primorsky Stage, bringing the world-class ballet dancers of the illustrious St. Petersburg theater to the Far East. The State Hermitage Museum is also building a branch in the city, which will exhibit collections of Russian art from the Romanov dynasty onward.
Vladimir Miklushevsky, the governor of Primorsky Territory, says a Far Eastern casino resort in Vladivostok will allow Asian tourists to enjoy Russia’s world-renowned arts without having to travel all the way to Moscow or St. Petersburg.
Starting this summer, a new system will be introduced in Vladivostok. Visitors entering Russia through the Far East region can get eight-day visas if they apply online beforehand. The program is aimed at attracting tourists from neighboring countries by eliminating some of the red tape involved in visiting the country.
In its quest to become a new Asian tourist hub, however, Vladivostok will face stiff competition from the likes of Macau, Singapore and South Korea, and there are questions over whether an underdeveloped Russian port town will be able to hold its own against the region’s established resorts.
Currently, there is only one luxury hotel in central Vladivostok — operated by a South Korean conglomerate.
Two five-star hotels were due to open in time for the 2012 summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, held in Russky Island, off the coast of Vladivostok. But a series of corruption scandals has meant neither has opened its doors.
Most of the roads and buildings in the city were built during the Soviet era and are in need of extensive renovation.
A resort in Vladivostok is unlikely to succeed unless the city can rapidly modernize infrastructure and secure skilled hospitality executives and personnel, said Olga Gurevich, managing director of the Primorye regional alliance of tour operators.
By TAKAYUKI TANAKA Courtesy Nikkei Asian Review