Ageing and shrinking, Japan’s country towns want to gamble away their economic and demographic woes.
“Japan’s population is rapidly declining and, for tourist towns, getting foreigners to visit is extremely important.”
Japan is one of the world’s last untapped gaming markets and, with a wealthy population and proximity to China, could generate $15 billion annually from casinos, industry experts say. That would make it the world’s second-largest gambling destination after Macau.
So far, the cities of Tokyo and Osaka have garnered much of the attention, but even towns like Sasebo, a once-proud shipbuilding centre in southern Japan, and the ageing port city of Otaru to the north, are hoping to set up casinos to draw tourists, generate tax revenues and reverse demographic decline.
Lawmakers are planning to submit an initial bill aimed at legalizing casinos by December 6 – when the current session of parliament ends – and enact concrete laws in 2015. The bill is thought to have a decent chance of passing with the business-friendly Liberal Democratic Party in power and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe backing the move.
The lawmakers have proposed two types of licences – one for large integrated resorts run by global operators featuring convention and entertainment facilities in addition to expansive gambling floors, and another for more compact gambling resorts in the countryside.
But they have also recommended that Japan limit the number of licences, prioritising locations promising the biggest economic impact and with the capacity to attract overseas tourists.
“I don’t mean to negate Tokyo and Osaka,” said Keiichi Kimura, who heads a consultancy and advises local governments and casino operators interested in Japan. “But it’s just not right to be focusing the debate on those two places only.”
Las Vegas Sands Corp and MGM Resorts International have made it clear that Osaka and the Tokyo region are their primary targets.
“These are the locations you can drive that kind of business tourism into and are known as commercial and financial hubs,” George Tanasijevich, president of Las Vegas Sands unit Marina Bay Sands, told Reuters after a presentation in Setpember in which he showed a mock-up for a casino resort on Tokyo Bay.
The northernmost island of Hokkaido is shaping up as one of the key casino battlegrounds with three locations – the port towns of Otaru and Tomakomai and Kushiro on the eastern coast – officially putting themselves forward as aspiring hosts.
Hokkaido, which draws tourists seeking a cooler location in the summer and skiers in the winter, has been cited by casino executives as one of the most attractive spots outside Tokyo and Osaka, along with the beaches of Okinawa in the south.