Hot springs are passe: Japan's tourist towns covet casinos
By Nathan Layne and Junko Fujita
OTARU/SASEBO, Japan (Reuters) - Ageing and shrinking, Japan's country towns want to gamble away their economic and demographic woes.
With lawmakers planning to submit legislation soon to open Japan to casino gambling, likely in time for the 2020 Olympics, several small cities, hot spring towns and tourist destinations are pushing to get one of the coveted licenses.
Japan is one of the world's last untapped gaming markets and, with a wealthy population and proximity to China, could generate $15 billion annually from casinos, industry experts say. That would make it the world's second-largest gambling destination after Macau.
So far, the cities of Tokyo and Osaka have garnered much of the attention, but even towns like Sasebo, a once-proud shipbuilding center in southern Japan, and the ageing port city of Otaru to the north, are hoping to set up casinos to draw tourists, generate tax revenues and reverse demographic decline.
"Hot springs, Japanese cuisine, Mt. Fuji and geisha (female entertainers) - these traditional Japanese things alone are not enough," said Kanekiyo Morita, a hotel executive who has proposed a pyramid-shaped casino in Atami, a hot springs town in central Japan.
"Japan's population is rapidly declining and, for tourist towns, getting foreigners to visit is extremely important."
Lawmakers are planning to submit an initial bill aimed at legalizing casinos by December 6 - when the current session of parliament ends - and enact concrete laws in 2015. The bill is thought to have a decent chance of passing with the business-friendly Liberal Democratic Party in power and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe backing the move.
The lawmakers have proposed two types of licenses - one for large integrated resorts run by global operators featuring convention and entertainment facilities in addition to expansive gambling floors, and another for more compact gambling resorts in the countryside. Continued...