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Singapore stunner now open for business
Singapore's Marina Bay Sands is the latest example of an integrated resort.

People have been having a lot of fun saying what they think Singapore's amazing new Marina Bay Sands resort looks like.

Some say its three 200m-high towers resemble three gigantic cricket stumps - topped by a 340m-long "Skypark," including a 150m-long swimming pool, instead of bails.

To others, it's a new-age Stonehenge, or something out of a Fred Flintstone cartoon.

Quirkiest of all, the boat-shaped Skypark is seen as a new Noah's Ark, stranded not on Mount Ararat but atop the resort's three towers after a horrendous tsunami.

Joking aside, the S6.6 billion resort built on 560,000 sqm close by Singapore harbour is jaw-dropping both inside and out.

Its recent formal opening, for which 1100 journalists and photographers were invited from all over the world, featured a concert by international showbiz stars Diana Ross, Kelly Rowland and the Jersey Boys.

Marina Bay Sands, standing out apart from downtown Singapore's forests of concrete skyscrapers nearby, is the latest example of an "integrated" resort - one offering not only accommodation but also such attractions as a casino, fine-dining restaurants , bars, night-clubs, a spa, theatres, big-name retail outlets, a theme park, a convention-expo centre and a museum.

The three towers contain 2561 rooms and suites in 55 storeys, with the casino on a lower level close to streets of elegant stores with names such as Bvlgari, Cartiers, Chanel, Christian Dior, Gucci, Hermes, Louis Vuitton, Tiffany's and Yves St Laurent - some operating now and others opening soon.

The casino itself offers up to 1000 gaming tables and 1400 poker machines, with four levels of gaming up to an exclusive club for high rollers; suspended from the ceiling is a 6.4m chandelier made from 132,000 Swarovski crystals.

Overall effect of the interiors of both the resort, its neighbouring Sands Expo and Convention Centre and "The Shoppes" is one of space - corridors are wide, ceilings high and everything immaculately furnished and decorated.

The Centre has five floors of convention and exhibition space over 110,000 square metres containing 250 meeting rooms and South East Asia's largest ballroom, seating up to 6600 diners at a banquet or 11,000 guests at a reception or convention.

The 1.2ha Skypark recreation centre is the icing on the cake.

It's longer than the Eiffel Tower is tall, and extends to form one of the world's largest cantilevers, overhanging the north tower by 67m.

The 150m swimming pool, also claimed to be the world's largest of its kind, has an "infinity" outside edge which from the park's tree-lined walkways looks as if swimmers heading for it risk plunging 200m to the earth below.

They couldn't, of course - there's a ledge just below it.

For the recent opening, the resort hired a model of each sex wearing brief costumes to cavort splashily in the pool, a display that drew cameramen like a magnet.

Among other facilities, the Skypark also has a public observation deck, spa pools and two restaurants opening soon, one with a bar-lounge, from which guests can enjoy the night lights of Singapore.

The high quality and variety of restaurant menus at Marina Bay Sands is ensured by the work of seven internationally-known chefs, among them Sydney's multi-award-winning Tetsuya Wakuda, who said he would be making monthly visits to his first "exciting" venture outside Australia after it opens for business within the next few weeks.

Tetsuya's restaurant here is called Waku Ghin, a name referring to the "silver metal" cooking surfaces and knives that he uses; it will serve Asian and European dishes for just 36 guests at a time, with different courses in different rooms.

The other celebrity chefs are Guy Savoy from Paris and Santi Santamarias (Barcelona), whose premises are already operating; opening shortly are the premises of Daniel Boulud and Mario Batali (New York), Justin Quek (Singapore) and Wolfgang Puck (Los Angeles) - who uses some of the prize grain-fed, aged "OBE" beef imported from west Queensland's Channel country.

For entertainment, Marina Bay Sands has an Events Plaza on the waterfront with two theatres seating a total of 4000 for concerts and musical shows; they and a lotus-shaped art and science museum will be completed over the next few months.

The Broadway hit The Lion King will make its South East Asian debut there next March.

One of two floating "crystal pavilions" to house night-spots will include the first Pangaea club outside its native United States.

To visit the casino, overseas guests undergo a passport check at the door.

It's a little more complicated for Singapore citizens and permanent residents, who must pay a fee of about $83 per entry, or $1660 per year.

The restriction would be "to safeguard the social impact of casino gambling," said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong - an explanation that brought a barrage of public criticism.

As well, family members of a casino patron may block him or her from entering - and a sign outside the entrance says that a local under the age of 21 found inside the casino faces a fine of $8300 and/or up to 12 months' jail.

The British established Singapore as a free port in 1819 and gambling was legalised in 1823 only to be banned after three years because of increasing betting addiction and crime.

In more recent years, legal gambling was confined to the horse-racing track and a government-run lottery, but in 2005 Prime Minister Lee announced that two casino hotels would be developed.

Before granting the island nation's first two casino licences, the government decreed that less than 10 per cent of the gross floor area should be for casino use.

From a total of 19 bids, Marina Bay Sands and Resorts World Sentosa were granted licences in 2006 and began four years of planning and construction before both gradually opening their doors over the last few months.

The "Sands" of the first-named indicates its parent company, the Las Vegas Sands Corporation, whose properties include integrated resorts named The Venetian on both the Vegas "Strip" and in Macau, Asia's gambling capital.

Like these two cousins, the Marina Bay Sands has a Venice-style mini-canal, with gondolas and gondoliers, laid out around its shopping precincts.

(Resorts World Sentosa attractions include Asia's first Universal Studios theme park.)

Sands CEO Sheldon G Adelison said during an opening-day media conference that the Singapore and Macau resorts were not seen as rivals to each other - Singapore was for travellers from South East Asia and India plus Australia and New Zealand, and Macau for Hong Kong and more northerly Asian countries such as mainland China (and Taiwan), Japan and South Korea.

With questions and answers interpreted into 11 languages for his audience, Mr Adelson hinted the company was interested in other sites for integrated resorts.

They could be in South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and even mainland China in Asia, the Middle East and Africa and in Europe perhaps Italy (in the face of Vatican opposition) Greece and Spain.

Australia was not mentioned, although there were plans nearly 20 years ago for an integrated resort at Robina inland from on the Gold Coast, according to the architect of the Marina Bay Sands project, Israel-born Moshe Safdie.

Mr Safdie, who has been associated with dozens of acclaimed buildings around the world, said that a Singapore company assigned him in 1981 to draft a plan for a Robina resort, but later failed to secure the necessary licence.

Mr Adelson said at the opening: "Marina Bay Sands is really the future of tourism development."

He added: "For countries serious about boosting tourism and creating jobs, the integrated resort model is unmatched and Marina Bay Sands will now be the reference point by which all new tourism projects are judged.

"In Singapore it will be the pivot point in which tourism here is going to explode."

Details: www.marinabaysands.com.

>> The writer was a guest of the Marina Bay Sands resort.