With bid policy set, localities in Japan roll dice on casinos

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In December, the central government finalized its basic policy for so-called integrated resorts (IRs) hosting casinos as well as shopping malls, hotels and other facilities.

The decision means localities interested in formally submitting their bid proposals now have a clear schedule of when they can do so, and a better understanding of what they can and can’t do during the selection process.

The bidding process begins Oct. 1 and will run until April 28, 2022, when a maximum of three locations will be selected.

What is the basic IR policy decided in December?

The policy is a series of basic standards for localities interested in submitting a bid proposal for their own local casino resort, and a basic outline of the rules local governments and interested casino operators will have to follow as they prepare their bid.

The central government had originally been expected to decide the policy in January 2020. However, in December 2019 Liberal Democratic Party Lower House member and casino proponent Tsukasa Akimoto was arrested in connection with a casino-related bribery scandal. Akimoto has since left the ruling LDP.

The novel coronavirus pandemic also forced casino operators to review their plans. So the government decided to revise the timeline for submitting IR project proposals, which originally had been between January and July of this year, to the new window.

The basic policy sets out the standards for determining what kind of proposals will be approved. These include the overall concept of the resort, which must include not only a casino area but also plans for international convention centers, entertainment and shopping facilities, exhibition halls and hotels with rooms and service that is internationally competitive.

There are also fairly specific rules governing contact between national and local officials and the casino operators selected for project proposals. Direct meetings with operators must take place in government buildings and be attended by multiple local officials, who must report the meeting to their supervisors before and after it takes place.

Communication by phone, email and facsimile with operators must also be reported by public officials to their superiors. The rules also state that records of meetings must be kept and stored for 10 years after the date of a locality’s selection.

Which localities are interested in building casino resorts?

Both the city of Osaka and Osaka Prefecture as well as Wakayama and Nagasaki prefectures have all announced detailed plans for local resorts and appear to have solid public support, or at least an absence of strong local opposition.

Following the December policy decision, Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura said he hoped a decision could be made sometime this summer or autumn on who Osaka would partner with to formally bid for an integrated resort.

But Osaka’s IR plans have hit a bump in the road. A consortium led by America’s MGM Resorts Japan, part of MGM Resorts International, is the only group to express formal interest in an Osaka project. But the COVID-19 pandemic has affected MGM Resorts’ bottom line and created uncertainty over Osaka’s plans.

Osaka Mayor Ichiro Matsui had hoped to have an IR open by the time of the Osaka Kansai World Expo in 2025. Yet even if an Osaka proposal is approved next year, there won’t be enough time to open a casino resort by then.

In neighboring Wakayama Prefecture, plans for a casino resort in the Wakayama bay area are moving forward more smoothly.

On Jan. 15, the prefecture announced that two firms were bidding for an IR project. They include Suncity Group Holdings Japan Co. and Clairvest Neem Ventures. Suncity Group is linked to Macau-based Suncity Group Ltd., while Clairvest Neem Ventures is a unit of Canada-based private-equity management firm Clairvest Group.

Wakayama will decide the winner this spring and, if it wins a bid next year, aims to open the resort in 2026.

Interest and political support for a casino resort is also quite high in Nagasaki Prefecture. Authorities there will tentatively decide which operator’s proposal to adopt by early autumn of this year, and hope to open the resort later in the decade.

What about Hokkaido and Yokohama?

In Hokkaido, Gov. Naomichi Suzuki announced earlier this month that there was insufficient time this year to reopen negotiations on proposals for an IR.

There had been interest in Tomakomai — which is not too far from Shin Chitose, Hokkaido’s main international airport — for a casino resort as a way to attract international tourists. But at the end of 2019, Suzuki announced that Hokkaido would pass on bidding for a casino resort at that time, leaving open the possibility of a future bid.

The situation is more contentious in Yokohama. The city intends to start accepting proposals next month for IR firms interested in bidding for a local project. The winner is expected to be selected this summer.

With Yokohama joining Osaka, Wakayama and Nagasaki in the race, its plan is to build a resort on a 43-hectare site in the Yokohama bay area. If approved, it could open sometime in the latter half of this decade.

But the move is controversial, coming after the Yokohama Municipal Assembly rejected a petition earlier this month to hold a referendum on bidding for an IR complex.

About 190,000 people signed the petition in support, but the LDP and Komeito-controlled municipal authorities voted against it. While incumbent Mayor Fumiko Hayashi supports a bid, she faces re-election in August, where the IR debate is expected to be one of the main issues.

What are Tokyo’s plans?

Following the central government’s policy decision in December, Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike told local media there were merits and demerits to hosting a casino resort and that both needed further debate based on the central government’s new guidelines.

However, compared with other localities there has been very little preparation for a Tokyo IR complex, and the capital — now focused on the Tokyo Olympics — is not currently expected to throw its hat into the ring with a bid for one of the first three casino licenses.

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