Imperial Pacific International’s casino in Saipan remains one of the most outrageous tales in Asia-Pacific gaming annals. Pieces of its unfinished beachfront casino hotel, closed since March 2020, are being auctioned off, but IPI’s failure still casts a giant shadow across the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, a US territory in the western Pacific.
During its five-plus years of operation, mostly as a temporary casino in a shopping mall, Imperial Pacific reported larger VIP gambling volumes than top Macau casinos on a fraction of the tables.
Now, IPI only leads the casino world in uncollected debt. According to figures from the UNLV Center for Gaming Research, over the past four years, the largest casinos on the Vegas Strip averaged $2.35 million in bad debt. IPI’s annual uncollected player debt ran more than 100 times higher. Bad debt on the Strip averages 1% of gross gaming revenue; for IPI, it accounts for more than 70% of reported GGR.
There’s speculation as to whether IPI produced those figures as part of a scheme for money laundering, share price manipulation – IPI is listed on the Hong Kong stock market, though trading has been suspended since April last year – a ploy to sell casino sublicenses for its purported US$7 billion Saipan Strip development, or just due to rank incompetence.
At its most basic, IPI demonstrates how difficult it is to create a viable casino in a jurisdiction of fewer than 50,000 inhabitants four hours from the nearest major source markets. Yet, many in CNMI, especially among the political class that licensed IPI in defiance of public opinion and local law, want to bet on casino gambling in Saipan again.
Former US diplomat and broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is editor at large for iGaming Business, a longtime contributor to Forbes, columnist for Asia Times and author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about TV news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com; follow him on Facebook, Twitter @MuhammadCohen and LinkedIn.