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Caesars eyes Okinawa as it unveils four Japanese casino plans

Las Vegas-based group says it won't insist on majority stake in resort venture

Caesars unveiled its visions for Japanese casinos.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Las Vegas-based Caesars Entertainment is eager to operate one of Japan's first casino resorts and has concepts ready for any of the proposed locations: Hokkaido, Yokohama, Tokyo and Osaka. But the gaming company also has ideas for the southern islands of Okinawa.

Caesars unveiled its visions for Japanese casinos at a news conference here earlier this week.

Watershed legislation in July opened the way for legal casino gambling in Japan as part of so-called integrated resorts. The first of these resorts is not expected to open until at least 2024, but Caesars, which emerged from bankruptcy protection last October, is among the multinationals attracted by the country's status as one of Asia's last untapped gaming markets.

Steven Tight, president of international development at Caesars, told the Nikkei Asian Review that the company is keeping its site options open, with Okinawa as one possibility.

Steven Tight, third from left, Caesars' president of international development, said Okinawa would be a "tremendous destination for tourism." (Photo by Eri Sugiura)

"It would be a fascinating opportunity for us if the governor were to support an integrated resort, because Okinawa would be a tremendous destination for tourism," he said of the subtropical islands, noting the upcoming gubernatorial election and which candidates were for and against casinos.

Each of the concepts is tailored to the location. The Hokkaido resort would be located in a forest and provide luxury camping facilities. The one in Osaka, a city known for its pharmaceutical and medical device industries, would serve as a medical tourism destination. A wave design distinguishes the Yokohama concept, which features a curvy hotel and convention center, in keeping with the city's busy Pacific Ocean port.

As for how it would work with Japanese partners, Tight said Caesars "does not require majority stakes as some of [our] competitors might." The company would like to control decisions that impact the guest experience, but it would respect the freedom of "Japanese investors to address their own objectives," he said.

Caesars is among a number of casino operators that have been in close contact with local governments in Japan, hoping to be part of the first round of licensing. Yokohama just closed its request for information period last week, and said eight of the 12 companies that submitted proposals were foreign resort operators. In addition to Caesars, they reportedly included Hong Kong-based Melco Resorts and Entertainment, and Las Vegas-based MGM Resorts International and Wynn Resorts.

A rendering of the Hokkaido design shows a resort surrounded by forest. 

Osaka, considered the most likely destination for a resort, received sponsorship from MGM and Melco for the region's Tenjin-Matsuri festival in July. In Hokkaido, Caesars and Canada-based Clairvest Group made a presentation in August at a conference held by a pro-resort organization composed of the local chamber of commerce in the port city of Tomakomai.

Industry watchers expect Japan's first integrated resorts to open in 2024 or 2025. The central government will establish an oversight body next summer that will handle casino regulation. Local governments interested in hosting a resort will select casino operators by the end of 2019. The central government will choose the winners and award the first three licenses by 2020.

The casinos will seek to attract growing numbers of international visitors to Japan and are seen by pro-gambling lawmakers as a way to sustain the country's tourism boom after the 2020 Summer Olympics. In contrast, Japanese citizens will have to pay a fee to enter the resorts and face restrictions on the number of times they visit.

Japan is opening up to casinos just as Caesars looks to start investing again, having cut its debt load in bankruptcy.

"Caesars was always very healthy from an operating perspective," Tight told the news conference. "It was simply a matter of reducing the debts so that all of the cash flow we generate didn't have to be used to repay the debts and could be focused on growth initiatives."

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