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Last Updated: Sunday, 2 April 2006, 09:44 GMT 10:44 UK
Kazakhs pondering 'desert Vegas'
By Ian MacWilliam
BBC News, Almaty

Skyscraper, Almaty
Kazakhstan's economy is booming, fuelling interest in casinos
Authorities in Kazakhstan say they are talking with investors about building a gambling and entertainment complex near the commercial capital, Almaty.

President Nursultan Nazarbayev said he had long thought of building a sort of Las Vegas on the vast empty steppe outside the city.

Officials say a new complex would help to control the growth of casinos and gambling in Almaty itself.

Kazak authorities have long been uneasy about gambling growth in major cities.

Almaty residents fret about the effects on children, or about old people pouring their pensions into slot machines.

Almaty now has nearly 40 casinos. Their colourful neon lights make some of the most impressive displays in a city which has been transformed in recent years.

But President Nazarbayev has said he wants to move the casinos and the hundreds of smaller gambling businesses out of the city entirely, to the shores of Lake Kapchagai, a huge reservoir 80km (50 miles) away.

Almaty unimpressed

That is in the vast dry steppe, a landscape not unlike the deserts which surround Las Vegas, but with a beach as well.

Lake Kapchagai is already popular in the hot Kazakh summers, despite the shabby Soviet industrial town nearby.

Slot machines in Las Vegas
Kazakh officials feel the right amount of gambling goes a long way
The president says talks are already under way with big investors to build the first street of a new entertainment city, with casinos, hotels and restaurants.

The mayor of Kapchagai is very keen.

He says an Asian Las Vegas here would attract tourists from all over Asia, not least from Kazakhstan's giant neighbour, China, home to some of the world's most avid gamblers.

The owners of Almaty's casinos are much less impressed.

They fear the huge investments they have already made will be lost if they are forced to close down in the city.

And some mutter darkly that the plans to build a Las Vegas on Kapchagai will simply further enrich a few Kazakh oligarchs with friends and relatives in the ruling elite.


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