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Cambodia betting big on casino profits

Nidhi Dutt reports on Cambodia's push for casino tourism and profit, and the cost of its gamble.

Gambling and casinos are a huge money making business in Asia. And from Macau, to Singapore and Sydney, casinos across the region are trying to cash in.

The chance to boost tourist numbers and profits is also driving poorer countries like Cambodia to expand their gambling outlets.

But the push into the world of gaming is coming at a cost.

Nidhi Dutt reports.
NIDHI DUTT, REPORTER: This is Poipet Cambodia, it's poor and rough and not really that welcoming. But try telling that to the gamblers.

Cambodia has over 25 casinos, and Asia's hard core gamblers are making the journey to places like here in Poipet in droves. We weren't allowed inside any of these casinos but some of their patrons were happy to tell us why they come all the way here and what goes on behind closed doors.

MALE GAMBLER (translation): I come here often to get lucky because gambling is Thailand is illegal. The police will arrest us.

MALE GAMBLER 2 (translation): My regular round trip by bus from Bangkok to these casinos only costs $3.

MALE GAMBLER 3 (translation): I play to win. But I lose often.

NIDHI DUTT: On Poipet's underwhelming casino strip, the disparate fortunes of these people in this rough and tumble town are on stark display. Curious looking casino buggies ferry cashed up tourists from one gambling hall to another.

It's not exactly Las Vegas, but since the late 1990s casino tourists, like the one you can see behind me, have been coming to this dusty Cambodian border town in search of jackpot. And they have been coming from as close as Thailand, just right across the border, to Singapore and China.

And with more tourist and more profits in the offing, this South East Asian nation's casino industry is expected to grow.

And this is one of Cambodia's newest gaming frontiers, the forests of Botum Sakor.

Tianjin Union Development Group, a Chinese real estate company is transforming more than 300 square kilometres of this area into a city sized gambling resort. The development will reportedly cost nearly $4 billion, and once complete the company claims it could be the next Macau.

It's evidence of how Chinese influence and investment is now reaching the most remote corners of South East Asia.

But, as we discovered, the roads leading there are still far from smooth.

We've been travelling for about five hours now through Koh Kong Province in the south of Cambodia. But despite the problems in our location, it really gives you an indication of the kind of remoteness of these areas and where the government is allowing for some major development work to take place.

The only other way to get to the casinos site is via this new highway, also being constructed by the Chinese company.

We weren't allowed to use it or to identify the area in our filming, but the Cambodian military personnel guarding it gave us a few insights.

This guard tells that around 100 people are working at the casino site and that the engineers are Chinese, and the labourers Cambodian.

He also says that he didn't know what he was guarding until he heard news reports about the casino on the radio.

And the law of big profits is pitting the government and foreign companies against ordinary Cambodians like Moung Samouen.

Moung used to own one hectare of land by the sea. He says he earned a decent living farming and fishing. But he was moved off his land to make way for the casino.

And about a year ago Moung and his family were given $400 and relocated to this flat, sandy area, far from the seaside where he once lived.

MOUNG SAMOUEN, VILLAGER (translation): I never wanted to come here. I was against the company and the government. But in the end I had to accept the decision and leave my home like the other villagers. They told me to move here where they promised to build a hospital and a school.

NIDHI DUTT: Despite widespread opposition, the government has had little to say about the foreign development in Botum Sakor, land acquisition and environmental concerns. But with an interview with the ABC, the environment minister insisted the growth of sectors like gaming is being managed well.

DR MOK MARETH, MINISTER OF ENVIRONMENT, KINGDOM OF CAMBODIA (translation): The Government has clear policies and we've learnt from the mistakes of other countries that have put their economies ahead of factors like the environment. We are working to create harmony between all competing factors.

NIDHI DUTT: Still, human rights groups say Cambodia needs to take a much closer look at all the costs that come with this industry, including the change that rural areas like this one may face as well as the impact of illegal activities, such as trafficking and smuggling that they argue often accompany it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Less than 1 per cent of the income comes from the casino sector, and I think it's not rational at all for our economy in general, because if you take into account of the negative social impact it's a lot. And why we invest too much on this sector with a small income like this?

NIDHI DUTT: On a quiet street in Phnom Penh, ordinary Cambodians are finding out what the future holds. And while they put their faith in astrology and tarot cards, their country is putting its, in part, in foreign companies.

The challenge Cambodia faces is balancing its casino development drive with the needs of communities that have, until now, been largely isolated from the benefits and perils of big business and modernisation.
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