COLOMBO, Dec. 18 (Xinhua) -- Sri Lanka's government has approved three hotel projects worth 1.3 billion U.S. dollars, including Australian gaming mogul James Packer's controversial casino project, the latest gazette notification said here on Wednesday.
It is customary for the Sri Lankan government to announce decisions through gazette documents that are usually issued at night.
The three projects that have been approved are a 350 million U. S. dollar casino project by Packer, a 300 million U.S. dollar gaming facility by local tycoon Dhammika Perera called Queensbury and the largest venture of 650 million U.S. dollars by local conglomerate John Keells Holdings (JKH) that will also have a casino.
These three hotel projects were initially presented as "mixed development" projects that would include the operation of casinos within their premises. However, in an unexplained twist, the government gazette, while approving all three projects, do not mention gaming facilities.
The government headed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa has run into severe criticism for allowing large scale casinos to operate in the island.
Last month protests headed by religious leaders and coalition parties of the government forced the postponement of a crucial bill that was to be presented to parliament to provide tax concessions to the new ventures.
Packer's casino in particular has been severely censured by the Opposition United National Party (UNP) for being given sweeping tax concessions for 12 years. The Australian Financial Review has estimated that the tax holiday will add up to as much as one billion U.S. dollars.
The UNP has also slammed the government for not establishing a competent monitoring system for casinos and alleged that public concerns were being ignored.
Sri Lanka's powerful Cabinet Ministers also approved the projects on Monday, setting the stage for more standoffs in the future.
Sri Lanka's interest in casinos are aimed at improving the tourist market, insists Investment Promotion Minister Lakshman Yapa Abeywardene.
Since Sri Lanka ended a three decade war in 2009, arrivals have leaped beyond the one million mark and the target is to attract 2. 5 million tourists by 2016.
One of the largest growth markets is China, with tourist number ballooning by 75.4 percent in the first ten months of 2013 compared with the same period last year.
Chinese arrivals rose from 16,623 to 29,153 in the first nine months of 2013 and efforts are underway to push the numbers up rapidly.