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COLOMBO/SYDNEY, Feb 27 (Reuters) - Australian gambling tycoon James Packer may be lining up a bet on Sri Lanka, scouting the Indian Ocean island for potential investments as he seeks to build a global casino empire.
Packer, who owns half of casino operator Crown Ltd, met with Sri Lankan ministers this week to discuss hotel and entertainment investment options, according to officials who met with him.
"They have not finalised the area and the amount they are going to invest. The government has asked them to come up with a proposal," Lakshman Yapa Abeywardene, Sri Lanka's Minister of Investment Promotion, told Reuters on Wednesday. "The government proposed (for) them to invest in a large city hotel in Colombo and go to (the eastern city of) Trincomalee to look into possible investment opportunities."
Treasury Secretary P.B. Jayasundera said Packer had expressed an interest in "integrated tourism", which typically includes hotels, casinos and other entertainment.
A Crown spokesman said the company would not comment about potential investments in Sri Lanka.
Analysts said Packer's interest in Sri Lanka was unexpected.
"I would have thought their focus would be more with Southeast Asia rather than somewhere like Sri Lanka," said one Australian-based gaming analyst, who declined to be identified.
However, Sri Lanka offered some potential for an early mover.
"It's probably not a bad move in some ways," said Akshay Chopra, a portfolio manager at Karara Capital, who visited the country in December. "The Sri Lankan government is making a lot of changes, you've got China investing a lot of money in Sri Lanka, building a lot of infrastructure and you're close to India and a big gaming market there."
Packer is ranked Australia's third-richest person with a fortune of $6 billion, according to Forbes. Last year, he cashed out of his family's publishing and broadcasting assets for about $1 billion to concentrate on his gambling business, which span casinos in Australia, Macau, Britain and the United States.
Packer's Melco Crown Entertainment Ltd plans to build a $1 billion casino in the Philippines in partnership with Philippines' wealthiest man, Henry Sy.
Sri Lanka expects its economy to grow at 7 percent or more this year, fuelled by major infrastructure projects, and is targeting about $1.5 billion in foreign direct investment after missing its $2 billion target in 2012.
The country has allowed casino gambling off and on since at least the 1980s and currently has about nine properties including the Bellagio Colombo, operated by India's Delta Corp and unrelated to the Bellagio Las Vegas operated by MGM Resorts.