9 Oct 2013

Fiji casino developer insists project will go ahead

6:20 pm on 9 October 2013

A series of delays in the construction of Fiji's first casino has cast some doubt over whether the project will ever get off the ground.

The government wants answers and some questions have been raised over the ability of the developer to raise funds for it.

But the company behind the project insists the casino will be built and construction will start before the end of the year.

Bridget Tunnicliffe reports:

Last week the attorney-general issued a statement saying the government would not hesitate to cancel One Hundred Sands Limited's casino licence if the company couldn't demonstrate that construction would begin soon. The developer Larry Claunch says they are in the process of responding to the government and he's confident they will continue to have their support.

"LARRY CLAUNCH: They've been very co-operative and very supportive. They've been firm because they want to get this done and we've been firm because we want to get it done, too, so we've really been just working together."

The regime granted the casino licence to the American company in December 2011 and construction of the project on Denarau Island near Nadi, was expected to start last year. The government extended the deadline twice but there's still no signs of any building work. The general secretary of Fiji's Hotel Workers Union, Daniel Urai, says they were looking forward to the development, which promised jobs and a boost for tourism. But he says there is a lot of scepticism now about whether the project will go ahead and believes the regime was misled by the developer at the start.

DANIEL URAI: Who talked about having projects in other parts of the world, but they were not telling them that they don't have the money to help run that project in Fiji. In a climate like Fiji there's a lot of people who make promises, I guess the regime may have been hoodwinked to being attracted to people who in the first place never had the money to come into the country.

But Larry Claunch says when early discussions with the government took place, they were operating in a different economic environment. He says in hindsight they were a little ambitious in their timetable for obtaining finance.

LARRY CLAUNCH: At the very beginning we really thought that it was very realistic, but of course that was right at the time when the world was in the worst financial mess that it had been in in a long time so we were probably a little bit optimistic on how quickly we could get it done.

Larry Claunch says they have now secured the bulk of the funding and says a late change in location also put the project behind. The owner of the Nadi Bay Resort Hotel, Errol Fifer, expects the casino will go ahead and says the project, which includes a five star hotel, will be the largest tourist development seen for years in Denarau.

ERROL FIFER: It's an attraction to the Asian market which is starting to show signs of increasing so it will just encourage more people to come to Fiji and that's what we're all interested in - it will give us more clout in the Pacific region.

Robert Lowres is the managing director of the Naisoso Island project - a multimillion-dollar luxury development - and a board member of Investment Fiji. He says while he understands the frustration, the challenges of securing funding for the project can't be underestimated.

ROBERT LOWRES: You know the global financial crises, the world's still a pretty sick place. And a country like Fiji, which is a developing country, is out there trying to raise finances against more established countries if you like, that project is too big to be funded internally.

Under the terms of the licence, the developer has to pay the government a US $100,000 penalty each month the project remains incomplete, starting this month, which Mr Claunch says he's already paid.