Crown Tokyo. It has a nice, if slightly imperialist, ring to it. It would be the icing on the cake for James Packer’s increasingly successful strategy of investing in Asian casinos, or as they are more euphemistically called these days, “integrated resorts”.

The prize in Japan, at least at face value, is mouth-watering: a foundation position in what is expected to be the world’s second- or third-largest casino market. Gambling revenues in Tokyo alone are forecast at about $10 billion, and there’s talk about at least one other casino in Osaka and up to six licences. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has emphatically signalled that he finally wants to legalise gambling in a country that already has the world’s most lucrative horse-racing industry (worth more than A$33 billion a year) and a truly massive grey market in the unique slot/pinball machine hybrid known as pachinko.

Packer’s Asian casino network is now going ahead full tilt, in particular the hugely successful Melco Crown casinos network in Macau. The former quaint Portuguese colony, which has an official population of about 600,000, pulls in five times as much revenue as Las Vegas. Its 35 casinos cashiered A$50 billion in gambling revenues for the first three-quarters of last year, up a heady 19% on the same period a year earlier. In 2007, Macau’s revenues totalled $11.6 million.

Even the biggest bulls did not predict the tide that has lifted all the boats, and Melco Crown, in which Packer holds a 33.7% stake, is no exception. Its third casino there is preparing to rip the covers off the green baize. On the back of this bonanza, Packer’s wealth surged by $2 billion last year, according to Forbes. But Macau could fall victim to its own success. It’s the world’s largest money laundry, and a Chinese government keen to be seen as tough on corruption could apply the brakes.

Melco Crown is building its City of Dreams in the Philippines, the region’s other fast-growing market, and Packer’s own Crown Group has scored the first licence in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo. Japan could be a very profitable addition to Packer’s Asian assets, with the Abe administration planning to introduce legislation by the middle of this year paving the way for the country’s first casino. Abe is hoping for something of a quinella with the legalisation of casinos in Japan; the prospective licences could be linked closely to plans for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Casinos and their retail and entertainment add-ons work for the five-ringed circus.

Packer and Lawrence Ho, his partner and chief executive of the Melco Crown, have been frequent visitors to the Japanese capital in the past 12 months as they ramp up their lobbying efforts. This week Crown Group’s executive vice president of strategy and design, Todd Nisbet, has been back in Tokyo, and Packer is poised to help spearhead the business delegation that will accompany Prime Minister Tony Abbott on his trip to Tokyo next month.

But securing lucrative Japanese licences is not a sure bet for Packer. Together with its partner Melco, Crown is trailing behind perceived frontrunners Las Vegas Sands and Malaysia’s Genting, which analysts say lead the licence race by dint of their successful implementation of gambling in once-wary Singapore.

Crowding the field is a slew of well-known contenders — MGM Grand, Wynn, and Caesar’s Palace — whose executives have been regular visitors to Tokyo, exploring relationships and potential partnerships as well as the perennial industry task of convincing politicians that legalising gambling is a good thing. A key part of the spiel is that the industry could help revitalise Japan’s moribund economy.

Despite the intensifying lobbying, it’s all very much “wait and see”. There’s increasingly noise from Japan’s politicians — read: the country’s ruthless business lobby — that outsiders would need to partner with local companies. The Japanese market has always been a particularly difficult one to crack for foreigners, and big brands like Walmart and Tesco have been seen off in the past.

Shareholders in Crown will be wondering what the potential explosion of gambling in Asia may mean for its Australian businesses. But when you have a near monopoly on home ground, that might not matter so much.

Peter Fray

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