President Benigno Aquino opened a giant $1.2 billion casino on Saturday to kick off the Philippines' high-stakes bid to join the likes of Macau and Las Vegas in an elite group of gaming destinations.
Solaire Manila Resorts is the first of four huge gaming venues set to rise on reclaimed land in Manila Bay as part of a complex named "Entertainment City" that officials hope will draw millions of newly well-off Asian visitors.
"Macau and Singapore are always competing for bigger pieces of this industry's very lucrative pie. Your presence in the country is proof positive that... above all else, the Philippines works," the Filipino leader said in a speech to Entertainment City investors and others guests.
Aquino and billionaire Philippine port king Enrique Razon, who controls Solaire, officially opened the integrated resort after a colourful ceremony featuring dancers pirouetting on ropes suspended from the ceiling.
Run by Las Vegas-based Global Gaming Asset Management, Solaire has 300 gaming tables and 1,200 slot machines on a floor the size of four football pitches.
The building also has 500 hotel rooms and 2,000 parking slots.
Another wing is being built to add 300 all-suite hotel rooms, 30-40 high-end shops and a theatre for travelling Broadway shows as well as local and foreign lounge acts.
"What Solaire brings is an entertainment and gaming experience that doesn't exist in the Philippines today," its American chief operating officer Michael French told AFP in an interview earlier this week.
"The gaming experience here will probably be as good, if not even better, than what they (customers) can achieve in Las Vegas."
Preparations are underway for the launch of the three other big-ticket casinos, which all involve major foreign backers.
The Belle Grande -- a joint venture with the Philippines' richest man, Henry Sy, Australian billionaire James Packer and Macau tycoon Lawrence Ho -- is scheduled to open next year.
Japanese gambling magnate Kazuo Okada and Malaysia's Genting Group are involved in the other two, each in partnership with local Chinese-Filipino tycoons. Both are expected to open between 2015 and 2017.
Cristino Naguiat, head of state regulator Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp, told AFP he expects Solaire to double Philippine gaming revenues this year to $2 billion.
When all four are open, he said Entertainment City should boost the country's annual gaming revenues up to $10 billion and help hit the government target of 10 million tourists annually, from just over four million last year.
The gaming turnover at present comes from 13 relatively small casinos around the country run by the government and a bigger one in Manila run by Genting and a Filipino tycoon that opened in 2009.
While Macau counts $38 billion in annual revenues, Naguiat is confident the Philippines will eventually have one of the biggest gambling industries in the world, comparing it with the Las Vegas strip's roughly $6-billion turnover.
"We will beat Las Vegas. I'm pretty sure of that," Naguiat said.
Ho, who flew to Manila Friday on the eve of the Solaire launch, said Asia is the future of the world's gaming industry and projects Philippine gaming revenues to grow to $3 billion by 2015.
"If you project that and extrapolate it even further down the road, the Philippines in five, six years could be effectively the size of Las Vegas or Singapore," he said.