Forget Oprah — she was so 2010 — the big buzz word in tourism this year is gambling. And the bigger the gamblers the better. The kind of jet-setting, big-money VIP punters who plunge more than half a million dollars on a game of baccarat and not even blink. And the big high rollers are in Asia.

Crown Casino controls at least 80% of the high roller market in Australia — and James Packer doesn’t want to lose it.

Now, to keep the big punters coming back, Packer is embarking on an extensive $1.3 billion renovation of its VIP rooms — turning Crown into a six-star high roller palace.

But he wants some help. Packer has bemoaned Tourism Australia for being too eager in riding the backpacker’s back. He says the government is not seeing the full tourism benefits in promoting casino tourism — particularly those of the high rollers in Asia.

”Singapore, a country renowned for being strict, made an assessment on casinos and decided that the benefits massively outweighed the costs, and the result of that is it has had the greatest rebranding success story in the world. Singapore’s tourist arrivals are up 25%,” he told Fairfax recently.

Packer has consistently stated he wants Australian tourism chiefs to echo what is happening in South-East Asia, where governments have given the green light to casino barons looking to cash in on the tables. And his pleas haven’t fallen on deaf ears. Tourism Minister Martin Fergurson told The Age this week “casino tourism is real” and it’s a “fact of life — high-roller tourism is big-yield tourism”.

And the importance of the big whales should come as no surprise: VIP players accounted for 17.5% of total casino gaming revenue in 2007-08, while expenditure associated with the big punters saw GDP rise by $84 million.

But Ferguson and Packer don’t just want the gambling dollars — they know punters will splash out on accommodation, food and beverages and shopping. Gamblers spend more than other tourists: a total of $4.9 billion that year at an average of $4940 per tourist — almost double the standard tourist spend of $2630.

Of the 49.6 million casino patrons in 2007-08, 2.4 million were international visitors. There are an estimated 30 million Chinese patrons in the premium gambling market. According to tourist numbers released this week, by 2020 China is expected to be the most valuable inbound tourism market, with visitors from South Korea, India, Malaysia and Japan predicted to round out the top ten.

According to an Allen Consulting submission to the Productivity Commission report into gaming, tourists from China are above-average gamblers with an average stake up to 1.8 times that of the run-of-the-mill gambler.

And the Chinese aren’t even the biggest gamblers: visitors from India, Singapore and Malaysia are also big spenders. When compared with the frugal punters from the UK — who spend 70% of the average gambling tourist — you can see why Packer can see the dollars in Asia.

But Packer isn’t alone in trying to court the premium gambling market. Star City in Sydney recently invested in an executive jet to fly punters to its tables. Jupiters on the Gold Coast have also looked at lavish planes to fly the biggest punters down under, while Packer has also plunged $600 million into his Perth casino.

But despite its best efforts, Crown has been losing high rollers to the big resorts of South-East Asia. Macau, the “Monte Carlo of the Orient”, has 33 casinos, with gambling making up half of the island’s economic revenue. Singapore is another big player in the casino boom: once reticent to allow casinos, lest they bring crime and social ills, the city-state has in recent years embraced the neon lights.

Its two new mega-casinos, the Marina Bay Sands and Resorts World Sentosa, are expected to rake in $US6.5 billion this year. It’s no coincidence Singapore has enjoyed 13 consecutive months of record visitor arrivals. Last December saw a record month for tourists, with 1.1 million visitors — up 16% on a year ago.

Like Packer, the owners of the Singapore strip have been at pains to project their casinos as entertainment complexes rather than gambling meccas. But the numbers suggest a different story: one analyst told The Economist this year an estimated 85-90% of the two casino’s takings come from gaming (of which most comes back to operator thanks to Singapore’s low tax rate).

Those figures have been echoed here: in 2007-08 gaming activities comprised 78.2% total casino revenue, followed by food and beverage sales.

But perhaps Ferguson and Packer are getting a bit ahead of themselves when they say casino tourism is the next big thing. When Crikey went to the Australian Tourism Export Council they said there were no casinos listed as members of the peak body.

This story is the latest installment in Crikey’s series Last Bets — examining just how hooked our country is on having a flutter.

NOTE: An original version of this story said Sky City casino is in Sydney. Sky City is actually in Adelaide and Darwin. Star City is in Sydney. A quote from the ATEC has also been removed.