June 2, 2017 / 9:52 AM / 5 months ago

Casino mogul Ho says Chinese gamblers unhampered by curbs

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Macau casino magnate Lawrence Ho, head of Melco Resorts (MLCO.O), said measures introduced in mainland China and Macau to tackle capital flight were not denting sentiment, as demand continued to recover in the world’s largest gambling hub.

Lawrence Ho, chairman and CEO of Melco International, also chairman and CEO of Melco Crown Entertainment. speaks during a Reuters interview in Hong Kong, China June 2, 2017. REUTERS/Bobby Yip

Casino revenue in the Chinese territory of Macau has boomed over the last 10 months, reversing a more than two-year slide that followed the peak of President Xi Jinping’s campaign against corruption and conspicuous consumption.

More recent efforts to control capital flight imposed by Macau authorities in May include facial recognition at ATM machines and new anti-money laundering regulations.

Ho, son of one-time Macau kingpin Stanley Ho, said these would simply prompt gamblers to alter their banking habits.

“It’s been two and a half years of being very stressed and fearful, so people are starting to let loose now in China,” said Ho, 40, a former derivatives banker whose group operates casinos in the Philippines and Russia, and is vying to build a multi-billion dollar casino in Japan.

Macau, a former Portuguese colony and now special administrative region of China, is the only place where Chinese nationals are legally allowed to gamble in casinos.

“Normally it would be big news and people would be scared away from Macau,” Ho said of the new measures.

“But because of the underlying demand, people adapt.”

Speaking in Hong Kong, Ho said his high-profile split from former business partner James Packer had been due to a difference of views - Ho saw a turnaround in Macau in May last year, whilst the Australian billionaire had wanted to focus on Crown Resort Ltd’s (CWN.AX) domestic assets.

“It was perfect timing. I wanted to increase my exposure and he wanted to decrease it,” said Ho, who did not rule out working with Packer in future.

Crown had been retreating from its foray into Macau since last October, when 18 staff were arrested in China for “gambling crimes”, raising questions over the future of the group’s prized source of growth, rich Chinese “VIP” gamblers.

Ho stressed the two groups, Melco and Crown, had marketed their companies separately in the mainland and said he did not know the reason for the arrests.

Crown and Melco’s partnership dates back to 2006, when they acquired a subconcession from the Macau government to operate casinos. To secure the subconcession they had to pay $900 million to Wynn Macau (1128.HK).   

Concessions granted by the Macau government will start to expire in 2020 and Ho said he hoped authorities would give an indication in the next year of what to expect. But he added he remained confident of the company’s ability to rebid or reapply for the licenses.

Authorities have been forcing operators to add significant non-gaming amenities to try to shift away from gambling.

Melco’s properties include a Batman-themed resort, dancing water show and ferris wheel. The company is due to open a new hotel tower in Macau in the next year.

Ho said his main objective, though, is now Japan, which legalized casinos last year. Major operators are jostling for position in what could be the world’s second-biggest casino market and Ho has vowed to outspend rivals.

“Whatever capex or capital that we have, we are really looking at deploying it,” he said.

Reporting by Farah Master; Editing by Clara Ferreira-Marques and Edwina Gibbs

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