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Competition to host Japan’s first casino resort heats up

  • August 27, 2017
  • , The Japan Times
  • English Press

By Eric Johnston, staff writer


As the Diet prepares to debate the structure of integrated casino resorts this autumn, competition in Osaka and neighboring Wakayama to win the rights to host one of the first legal gambling complexes in the country is heating up.


The most talked-about candidate for the site remains Yumeshima, an artificial island in Osaka Bay.


But two other places are also lobbying hard to host the tourism attraction — Rinku Town in Izumisano, Osaka Prefecture, and Wakayama Marina City in Wakayama Prefecture.


Rinku Town, home to shopping centers, offices and logistics centers, sits across the bay from Kansai airport in southern Osaka, just a few minutes away by train. Proponents of the site believe it’s ideally located to attract planeloads of tourists heading to and from the airport.


In fact, it was originally proposed in 2002 by Osaka Prefecture, the city of Osaka and local business groups as a possible casino site. After the city of Izumisano passed a resolution in 2013 in support of a casino, a local committee was formed the following year to explore the issue.


A 2013 survey by the city showed 68 percent of residents supported lifting the ban on casino gambling, which happened last year through legislation in the Diet.


“In order to lift the casino ban via last year’s legislation, long years were spent by municipalities talking to residents, conducting symposiums on integrated resorts, and setting up IR bid committees,” Izumisano municipal official Yoshihiko Matsushita told panel members at a public hearing in Osaka earlier this month. “These local governments have knowledge about efforts made to legalize casinos in Japan.”


He added that even if the Osaka Prefectural Assembly approves a resolution to lure a casino resort, problems could occur if the host city’s assembly or its residents don’t agree.


“Don’t turn away from municipalities that have been making efforts over long years to realize integrated resorts, and create a bill that makes local revitalization the top priority,” Matsushita said at the hearing.


Takunori Nishimura, a representative from Junior Chamber International Izumo, said a final decision should ensure there is no heavy tax burden on residents for new roads and bridges, which would not be needed for a casino in Rinku Town.


“Recent media reports indicate the city of Osaka will need to pour large amounts of tax revenue into building infrastructure for Yumeshima. It’s time to return to one of the original ideas behind integrated resorts for Japan, which called for a tourism policy that didn’t eat up tax money,” Nishimura said.


Nishimura spoke earlier this month at a public hearing in Osaka, one of nine such hearings held nationwide. Suggestions made there are likely to be reflected in a bill to be submitted to the Diet in September and enacted as law by the end of the year.


Late last month, a government panel appointed to recommend detailed rules and regulations on how licensed casino resorts would be selected, operated, and monitored presented its report to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.


Farther south, in Wakayama Prefecture, efforts are accelerating to secure a casino resort in Wakayama Marina City, about 45 minutes by car from Kansai airport and 70 minutes by car from downtown Osaka.


The prefecture believes it can attract enough of the roughly 6 million foreign visitors to Kansai airport to make a profit. Officials say that if Wakayama Marina City were awarded a casino license, construction of facilities could begin immediately, unlike at Yumeshima. That could give Wakayama the edge in its bid to become the host of Japan’s first so-called integrated resort.


Wakayama’s position is that the Diet needs to approach legislation on awarding casino licenses from the perspective of regional economics.


“Looking at the panel’s report last month, at large-scale casino resorts like those seen overseas, the number of customers and the economic effect are the main focus,” the Wakayama Prefectural Government said in a statement after the report was released. “There is weaker emphasis on resorts contributing to reviving a local economy or spurring local creativity. More than the size of the facilities, emphasis should be on their quality and ability to contribute to regional revitalization.”


Wakayama’s efforts have irritated officials in Osaka and Izumisano, who worry Tokyo would not award licenses for two casino resorts in the same general vicinity.


Still, political and business leaders in the city of Osaka and Osaka Prefecture, as well as media outlets, have touted Yumeshima as an ideal site to host a casino resort, putting forward a plan complete with hotels, convention centers, and shopping and cultural facilities.


The Yumeshima plan has attracted interest from overseas casino operators like Las Vegas Sands Corp. and MGM Resorts International, and especially Melco Resorts & Entertainment, which has said it prefers building in Osaka to Tokyo.


As the head of the Osaka-centered Nippon Ishin no Kai party and an ally of Abe, Ichiro Matsui and his party have also pushed their recommendations for casino resort standards and operational policies on the government.


But with the panel recommending that prefectural governments take the lead and work closely with casino resorts, some in Osaka Prefecture are concerned that prefectural politics will be prioritized over local considerations and economic logic in their rush to meet the requirements for building one.


The government is expected to approve only two or three integrated resorts at first.


While the central government has the final word on the location of the nation’s first casinos, the odds currently favor at least one of those being in Kansai.

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