Ho Seeks Japan Casino as Development Limits Loom in Macau

Lawrence Ho, son of Macau gambling tycoon Stanley Ho, plans to invest more than $5 billion in Japan if Melco Crown Entertainment Ltd. receives permission to build a casino there as he sees constraints on development at home.

Ho’s maneuver to build projects in the world’s third-largest economy is part of his strategy to expand overseas for future growth, as government policies, limited land and a labor shortage in Macau could eventually restrict gaming development.

“We still have the most eggs in the Macau basket,” Ho, co-chairman of Melco Crown, said in an interview in Tokyo on Sept. 28. “Given the Macau government and the Chinese government want to control the growth rate,” the company is seeking other opportunities outside the city, he said.

Ho is investing in gaming projects in the Philippines and Russia in addition to lobbying for casino gaming in Japan. The Macau government has limited the number of gaming tables and hands out land permits at intervals to prevent the industry from growing too fast in a city that’s half the size of Manhattan and whose $38 billion in casino revenue last year was six times larger than that of the Las Vegas Strip.

“Macau is a small place,” Ho said. “As much as I want to build a theme park, we just don’t have the land to do it.” Still, he expects casino revenues in Macau will grow at least 10 percent next year as the global economy improves.

Melco shares fell 1.8 percent to close at HK$80.40 in Hong Kong trading today, reducing this year’s gain to 88 percent, compared with the 0.9 percent gain in benchmark Hang Seng Index.

Japan Potential

Ho plans to build Japan casino resorts, preferably in Tokyo and Osaka, through Melco Crown, the Hong Kong-based venture he has with Australian billionaire James Packer that has current developments in Manila and Macau. The company gets all its revenue from Macau at present.

“The potential is huge,” the 36-year-old said. “If Japan opens up and allows integrated resorts in Tokyo, Osaka, the market could easily be in excess of $10 billion to $15 billion or more.”

Wynn Resorts Ltd., MGM Resorts International, Las Vegas Sands Corp. and Caesars Entertainment Corp. are also seeking expansion opportunities in Japan as Tokyo’s selection to host the 2020 Olympics boosts confidence the government will legalize casinos. Wynn and MGM executives have said their companies would invest several billion dollars in the North Asian nation.

Japan has long been touted as an attractive gaming market with a large and relatively rich population base. It also enjoys global appeal as a tourist destination. The country would generate $10 billion in casino revenue a year should it open up the market, Union Gaming Group LLC estimated.

Beyond Gaming

Ho said he has been lobbying multiple cabinet members in Japan for the legalization of casinos. He sees “significant” non-gaming revenue for the country because “there’s so much to do, so much to see. Japan has a rich culture,” the executive said.

Wynn Resorts’ investment in a Japan casino “is going to be way bigger” than the $4 billion it is spending on its current project in Macau’s Cotai area, Wynn Resorts Development President Gamal Aziz said in an interview earlier this month in Tokyo.

Both MGM and Wynn said they plan to partner with a local consortium to build casino resorts while Sands has said it is “open minded” about the idea. Ho said Melco is also considering working with local groups. The three U.S. gaming companies are also interested in developing projects in Tokyo and Osaka.

Farther South

In the Philippines, Melco Crown is teaming up with local billionaire Henry Sy’s Belle Corp. to develop a casino resort in Manila, which is expected to cost $1 billion. Ho is also investing in two Russian casino resorts worth $630 million.

In Macau, the only place in China where gambling is legal, Melco Crown reported second-quarter profit more than doubled and is building its Studio City casino resort on the increasingly popular Cotai Strip, the city’s answer to the Las Vegas Strip. Melco Crown’s Hong Kong and U.S. shares are both up about 90 percent year to date.

Lawrence’s 91-year-old father Stanley Ho, nicknamed “the king of gambling” by the local press, held a casino monopoly in the former Portuguese colony for four decades until 2002, when the government issued licenses to six operators, including Sands, Wynn and MGM Resorts. The senior Ho built Asia’s largest gambling empire with SJM Holdings Ltd. by catering to high rollers from China.

The junior Ho said he doesn’t gamble and would rather be known as “the person who built cool integrated resorts” that are “more cutting-edge and entertainment-centric.”

Still, “gaming is a very important component because it is the financial engine that allows us to build these multi-billion properties,” the executive said.

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