Macau casino scion aims to break into Japan market

Mr Lawrence Ho has already widened his firm Melco’s international footprint, with casino resorts in the Philippines and Russia.
Mr Lawrence Ho has already widened his firm Melco’s international footprint, with casino resorts in the Philippines and Russia.PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG • Casino magnate Lawrence Ho - son of Macau gaming legend Stanley Ho - is eyeing a major foray into Japan as he seeks to broaden his family's reach beyond the world's biggest gambling hub.

His father was credited with transforming Macau from a sleepy Portuguese outpost to a gaming boom town boasting revenues surpassing Las Vegas. With its myriad shimmering palaces of fortune and fantasy, the city is the only part of China where casino gambling is legal and has become a favourite haunt of mainland high-rollers.

But the younger Ho, 40, whose casino-to-resorts firm Melco International rivals his father's gaming empire, is keen to strike out beyond familiar family turf, with plans for a major investment in Japan's untapped casino market.

With a net worth put at US$2.6 billion (S$3.5 billion) by Forbes earlier this year, he has already broadened the firm's international footprint, with casino resort ventures in the Philippines and Russia.

He is now squaring up to crack Japan's gaming industry after strict bans on casinos were lifted last year. "Nothing will hold me back there," he said.

Japan already has an appetite for other forms of gambling, including horse and boat racing, and pachinko - a slot machine-style game played in smoky parlours that is a huge revenue generator.

Fears over gambling addiction and organised crime were swept aside as the country passed a controversial Bill to legalise casinos last year, a move seen as likely to ignite the gaming market in the world's third-biggest economy.

Mr Ho promised an ambitious pitch for the coveted casino licence. He has already sought to diversify his Macau offerings in recent years as the industry came under pressure from a slowdown in the Chinese economy and a corruption crackdown by Chinese President Xi Jinping that curbed high spenders.

Operators scrambled to bolster their mass market appeal to offset a dramatic drop in revenues from the VIP sector.

Mr Ho's Studio City built the world's first and highest figure-of-eight ferris wheel, and in 2015 it was launched amid much fanfare, with stars such as Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio in attendance.

Other attractions in Melco's City of Dreams include a theatre that holds 1.4 million litres of water for aquatic performances.

Mr Ho said he is confident his casino licence, set to expire in 2022 along with those of other operators, will be renewed, and that Macau would continue to be the lynchpin of his business. "Macau will always be the best integrated resort gaming market in the world because it's on the doorstep of China," he said.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 02, 2017, with the headline 'Macau casino scion aims to break into Japan market'. Print Edition | Subscribe