Singapore is doubling down on Las Vegas-style casinos, in what is likely to be a boon for a couple of lucky operators.

The government of the island city-state Monday gave the nod to two large casino resorts after months of weighing their economic benefits against social costs. The decision appears to offer even more than gamblers and gaming companies were hoping for. In a December request for resort proposals, the government suggested it was considering only a single large resort.

Singapore has selected the Marina Bayfront, close to its downtown business district, and the southern island of Sentosa as sites for the resorts, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in remarks before Parliament that the government published on the Internet. Investment in the two projects could total about S $5 billion, or about US $3 billion, he said.

The government expects to have the resorts up and running by 2009, according to media reports. It will now ask bidders to submit more detailed proposals and select winners by the end of this year.

Given Singapore's position in the heart of Southeast Asia, the casinos

are likely to tap a large market.

The government's December request for proposals drew 19 bids. Las Vegas heavyweights

MGM Mirage

(MGG)

,

Harrah's Entertainment

(HET)

,

Wynn Resorts

(WYNN) - Get Report

and

Las Vegas Sands

(LVS) - Get Report

hope to get a piece of the action.

Bahamas-based

Kerzner International

(KZL)

also submitted a proposal. There is local competition, too. Malaysia's

Genting Group

, which owns and operates that country's only casino, has submitted proposals for both the Marina Bayfront and Sentosa sites.

Although Prime Minister Lee acknowledged large-scale casino gambling could create social problems by stoking gambling addiction, he said the cabinet decided to go ahead with the projects to spice up Singapore's image among tourists.

"The feedback we have been getting is that Singapore is seen as unexciting," he said, noting the city-state's market share of Asian tourism is declining. "We have not been investing in tourism infrastructure projects that are crowd-pullers."

Nevertheless, in a nod to public opposition to the casinos, the government will take steps to keep Singaporeans from betting over their heads. Locals will have to pay an entrance fee of S$100 a day (about US$60), or S$2,000 (about US$1,200) a year. The casinos won't open their doors to residents receiving social assistance, and Singaporeans can voluntarily exclude themselves or close family members from the casinos.