By Andrew Salmon For The Straits Times In Seoul
As it seeks to upgrade its tourism infrastructure, South Korea is mulling legal changes that might allow locals to enter casinos - an issue that has, so far, been a barrier to international resort operators seeking to enter the market.
Currently, South Korea has 17 casinos nationwide but they are open only to foreign visitors. The one exception, Kangwon Land, was established with special government permission to revitalise a mining town devastated by unemployment.
Now, a Singaporean-based resort operator is proposing that South Korea looks to the island nation as a possible benchmark.
"Singapore has been an early mover to develop integrated resorts and all other markets in Asia are just considering integrated resorts," said Mr George Tanasijevich, president and CEO of Singapore-based integrated resort Marina Bay Sands, at a press event on June 7.
"Korea has the opportunity to be an early mover and reap the benefits," he said.
The push comes as South Korea is aggressively promoting itself as a MICE - meetings, incentive travel, convention and exhibition - destination. However, it lacks a Sands-style mega-complex.
A casino, said Mr Tanasijevich, is a "critical element" for revenue generation in an integrated resort, to cover the costs of the less commercially viable aspects of the facility, such as conference facilities and museums.
MICE advocates appear to be on board.
"Korea needs a new regulatory system to regulate casinos," said Dr Hwang Hae Jin, the chairman of the MICE Integrated Resorts Industry Development Committee, an academic group, which presented the Singapore case in South Korea's National Assembly on June 12.
"Singapore did it very scientifically," she said. Singapore changed its laws to allow gaming, albeit with significant safeguards, to allow Marina Sands' establishment.
If South Korea's debate takes off, it could get lively.
A source said that struggles are underway within South Korean bureaucracies. One ministry wants more "foreigners only" casinos in free economic zones set up around South Korea's periphery, while other agencies note that these FEZs have largely failed to lure foreign investment, so want bigger, bolder resorts.
Public perceptions on the issue has been conservative.
"People just think gambling is bad, it is an emotional issue; people are against it without any grounds or case studies," said Dr Hwang. "Now is very good timing to consider this integrated resort model as Korea has many underground gambling issues."
But thinking may be shifting. According to a Gallup poll sponsored by the Korean Tourism Organisation, or KTO, 70 per cent of South Koreans now favour the opening of casinos to domestic users if they are appropriately regulated.
The stirring of interest may indicate why Marina Bay Sands is so active in Seoul. Mr Tanasijevich is a regular visitor, and on June 7, in addition to a busy schedule of media interviews, oversaw a Sands-sponsored design competition among five university and design agency teams to come up with ideas about what a Korean-style integrated resort would look like.
The proposals included a design based on the shapes of Korean pottery and another that blended the bright colours of hanbok, or traditional clothing, with hi-tech displays. The winning team's concept, from Seoul's Joongang University, was "Myths" - a resort themed around Korean legends in Seoul's riverside district of Yongsan.
Whether South Korea might follow Singapore's case and loosen restrictions on casinos is as yet unknown, but another problem is that South Korea - which for decades laboured under administrations that prioritised work, not play - has not customarily focused on leisure and tourism.
"In Korea, everyone was proud of the fact that they never took vacations," said Mr Jeff Jones, a US lawyer who formerly headed the American Chamber of Commerce in Korea and now chairs a committee advising the KTO. "Tourism was never viewed as an industry."
That is changing. The previous administration, which left office in February, had as its flagship policy the rejuvenation of South Korea's four main rivers, a project designed to kick-start rural tourism.
According to local media, various foreign companies and entrepreneurs are looking at South Korea as an investment destination. Meanwhile, the rise in Japanese, Chinese and South-east Asian visitors, inspired by "hally" or the "Korean Wave" of pop music and TV dramas, are shifting local perceptions about tourism as a value-added sector.
Yet South Korea's numbers could be better, reckoned Mr Tanasijevich.
"Last year, Korea had a strong year for tourism growth hitting 11 million foreign visitors - I believe that was a record," he said, comparing that to the 14 million visitors that Singapore - a far smaller nation - welcomed in the same year. "We have heard that South Korea wants to get 20 million tourists, but you have to introduce new tourism elements."
Even South Korea's aggressive MICE industry needs to be more globalised. While the country has hosted such high-profile events as the G20 Leaders Summit in 2010 and the Nuclear Security Summit in 2012, most conferences and exhibitions are government-, rather than private-sector sponsored, Dr Hwang said.