The Japanese government has set a goal of 40 million foreign tourists visiting the country by 2020. In that particular year, the Summer Olympics in Tokyo will come in handy. Still, it will be necessary to create longer lasting attractions to secure a steady stream of visitors, and to not only direct them to tourist hotspots like Tokyo and Kyoto that already feel the strain of the government’s mostly successful push for more visitors. The original goal for 2020 had been 20 million; it was doubled when it was reached four years ahead of schedule in 2016. One of the options sounds somewhat radical for Japanese sensibilities: gambling.

Japan is looking for ways beyond the upcoming Summer Olympics to draw tourists

It’s not that the Japanese don’t like to gamble. In fact, authorities seem to fear they like it too much, so playing for money has been banned for centuries. There have been exceptions like certain sports bets and work-around solutions such as winning prizes at pachinko parlors that can be exchanged for cash at separate locations. However, full-blown casino operations so far have been left to the underground world of the yakuza.

That is (very likely) about to change. April 27 saw two historic events in Eastern Asia: the chummy first meeting of Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in in the demilitarized zone between the Koreas and the passing of a bill in the Japanese cabinet that will allow the introduction of three casino resorts to the country. Those will, in principle, be open to adults of all nations, but mostly to international visitors. Visitation rights by Japanese citizens will be limited. The bill still has to be reviewed by the diet’s two chambers, but final approval seems likely regarding the large majority of the ruling coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito hold in both chambers.

Traditional casinos have long been banned in Japan, but that may be changing soon

It was on the very same day of the passing of the bill that gambling industry officials and politicians came together in Osaka for the ‘1st Osaka (Kansai) IR Showcase’ to discuss where the integrated casino resorts should go once the bill is through. “If all goes well, a casino in Osaka could open by 2023 or 2024 at the latest”, Osaka’s governor Ichiro Matsui told the press prior to the event. The resort would be erected on an artificial island in Osaka Bay, with a goal of attracting 13 million visitors in 2024, 4 million of them from abroad. By 2030, 22 million including 7 million international gamblers have been projected annually.

Since international visitors in Japan mostly means Chinese tourists (making up 27 percent of all visitors), politicians and investors are looking at places like Macau and Singapore for inspiration. Adult foreign nationals will gain access to the new facilities without limits or extra charges, while Japanese citizens will have to pay entrance fees of 6,000 Yen and will be limited to three visits a week or ten a month.

While the casinos are ostensibly a means to attract foreign visitors from all markets, Chinese tourists are likely the main target.

Osaka seems a safe bet for winning the bid for one of the three resorts. Other candidates include obvious choices like Tokyo or Yokohama, but also dark horses such as Tomakomai in Hokkaido. The town conveniently connects to New Chitose Airport, which already operates direct flights from and to mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore.

One of the leading candidates to build Osaka’s casinos is Hong Kong-based Melco Resorts & Entertainment Ltd. At a conference in Tokyo last year, CEO Lawrence Ho promised: “This opportunity is priceless, and we’ll spend whatever it takes to win.” His statement is also a response to the pledge by the Las Vegas Sands Group to invest $1 billion in Japan. According to Ho, Melco is not about to “constrain our dreams with price tags.”

The company showed a strong presence at last month’s trade show in Osaka. Their website already has a tab titled ‘Our Vision in Japan.’ That page, however, was still under construction at the time of writing.

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