Japan's Abe eyes Singapore-style casino resorts to boost tourism

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is set to tour Singapore's two lavish casino resorts on Friday as his home country toys with the idea of liberalising casino gambling to boost tourism and attract investment.

Japan, home to 128 million people and the world's third largest economy, is widely seen as a prize market for casino operators due to its affluent population and close proximity to wealthy Asian gamblers in the region.

Brokerage CLSA estimates Japan could be the world's third biggest gambling market after Macau and the United States, raking in revenues of at least US$40 billion (S$50.2 billion) annually and with many more years of growth before it starts to mature.

Abe, who has so far remained silent on the issue of casino liberalisation, will visit Marina Bay Sands, the three pronged waterfront resort built by U.S. billionaire Sheldon Adelson's Las Vegas Sands and the sprawling Resorts World Sentosa, owned by Genting Singapore.

Japan has been deliberating opening casinos for more than a decade but the chances have never been higher that the country will move to liberalise casino gambling. While parliament is unlikely to pass a bill in the current parliament session which ends next month, lawmakers are hopeful it will go through later in the year.

Lawmakers supporting the casino bill are aiming to pass it in the fall extraordinary session, political and industry sources said on Friday.

"It's logistically difficult for it to pass in the current session," one political source said, while adding that supporters of the bill were still hoping to start parliamentary debate next month. "I would say it's highly likely to pass in the fall."

The same source saw little likelihood legislation would be delayed until next year, which could leave too little time to build the resorts in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

If the current bill passes, debate will move on to a second bill concerning concrete regulations, which proponents hope can be passed in 2016.

International casino companies including Las Vegas Sands, Genting, MGM Resorts and Melco Crown Entertainment have all been trying to position themselves ahead of the bill passing. Genting Singapore has set up 8 subsidiaries in Japan for investment holding, leisure and related businesses, the company said on Tuesday in a notice to the Singapore stock exchange.

Adelson has said he would spend US$10 billion on developing a casino resort while rivals have announced investment of around US$5 billion for a casino in either Tokyo or Osaka.

Singapore's two integrated resorts which combine casinos with dining, entertainment, and convention business are the preferred model Japan would emulate, lawmakers have said.

Marina Bay Sands, which cost US$5.4 billion, has helped to boost convention business in Singapore, while Resorts World Sentosa, which houses a Universal Studios theme park and a large scale aquarium, has helped to lure record numbers of tourists since opening in 2010.

Industry executives have said in private that a Marina Bay Sands type resort which lies in close proximity to Singapore's financial district would be a good fit for Tokyo while a more leisure focused resort like Sentosa would be better suited to Osaka or a regional city.

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