Singapore on Friday awarded a hotly-contested license to build the city-state's first casino to the U.S. casino operator Las Vegas Sands Corp. (LVS), owner of The Venetian in Nevada. The Singapore casino project could be the world's costliest by the time it opens in 2009.

Singapore last year reversed its decades-old ban on casino gambling, and said it would award licenses to operate a casino resort at Marina Bay and another on the resort island of Sentosa to boost tourism and help the city-state shed its straight-laced image.

U.S. casino operators have been rushing to expand in Asia to tap the region's fast-growing ranks of millionaires and middle-class consumers.

Las Vegas Sands was selected for the Marina Bay license over three other bidding groups — MGM Mirage and CapitaLand Ltd., Harrah's Entertainment Inc. (HET) and Keppel Land Ltd., and Genting International PLC and Star Cruises Ltd.

Las Vegas Sands, which is controlled by former Comdex trade show boss Sheldon G. Adelson, also runs the Sands Macao in Macau, the only part of China where casino gambling is legal.

The casino-resort at Marina Bay, which will be built on a 50.9-acre waterfront site near the financial district, is likely to cost more than 5 billion Singapore dollars ($3.16 billion), Singapore's Deputy Prime Minister S. Jayakumar told a news conference.

Currently, the world's most expensive casino is the $2.7 billion Wynn Las Vegas that was completed late last year.

Sands says it expects to open the resort in 2009.

Sands' President and Chief Operating Officer William Weidner welcomed the Southeast Asian island-republic's decision.

"Our presence in Singapore, combined with our footprint in North Asia and access to China, the largest source of tourism in the foreseeable future, will enable us to generate mutual benefits for both economies and for visitors alike," Weidner said in a statement.

Jayakumar said Sand's proposal best met the city-state's economic and tourism objectives, and would significantly strengthen Singapore's position as a leading destination for conventions and exhibitions.

The casino and resort will be a "large scale iconic development," he said, with a construction cost of 3.85 billion Singapore dollars ($2.43 billion) and a land cost of 1.2 billion Singapore dollars ($760 million).

"The (Sands) proposal also possesses unique design elements which will provide a memorable image for Marina Bay," Jayakumar added.

The Marina Bay Sands will directly employ 10,000 people and result in 20,000 jobs being created in other industries, Trade and Industry Minister Lim Hng Kiang told the news conference.

According to the Singapore Tourism Board, the bidders were assessed based on four criteria: tourism appeal and contribution; architectural concept and design; development investment; and strength of the consortium and partners.

The tender for Singapore's second casino was launched in April. The government will likely decide on the winning bid for the Sentosa casino before the end of the year.

Adelson founded the technology trade show Comdex in 1979 and sold the company to Japan's Softbank Corp. for more than $860 million in 1995. He purchased the Sands Hotel and Casino, former home to Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack, in 1989. He later tore down that facility and erected the The Venetian, a $1.5 billion casino resort. Las Vegas Sands went public in December 2004.