Packer plans $5bn casino in Japan

Melco Crown in talks with Japanese firms on possible joint venture.

James Packer’s Melco Crown Asian gaming joint venture is in talks with several Japanese corporations -- including some with operations in Australia -- about joining forces to build a $US5 billion ($5.4bn) casino complex in Japan in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Todd Nisbet, the Crown executive leading the Japan casino bid, said the company was eyeing a project even more elaborate than Melco Crown’s flagship City of Dreams mega-resort in Macau.

In an interview with The Australian, Mr Nisbet also revealed Crown was in active talks with the Vietnamese and South Korean governments about their plans for new casino resort developments, and said he expected negotiations over Crown’s casino project in Sri Lanka would be completed before the end of the year.

But Japan’s potential as a $40bn-a-year gaming market means it remains Melco Crown’s highest priority internationally.

“Japan is the biggest single opportunity that we are looking at in terms of an international expansion and growth story, just because of the sophistication of the market, the appeal of the overall area,’’ Mr Nisbet said. Crown boss James Packer will visit Tokyo this week as part of a business delegation accompanying Prime Minister Tony Abbott on his North Asia visit, and will speak about the company’s plans for Tokyo at a business function.

Mr Nisbet downplayed the prospect of rising tensions between China and Japan affecting the bid, saying that Melco Crown’s well-regarded Hong Kong-based chief executive Lawrence Ho -- Mr Packer’s partner in the business -- would be an asset to the bid.

Casino giants Wynns, Las Vegas Sands and others are vying for the right to build and operate casinos in Japan, which is preparing to allow integrated casino resorts in Tokyo and possibly Osaka and regional cities to meet its tourism targets and reinvigorate its economy.

Japan, a nation of 120 million people strategically located in north Asia, has long been regarded as the casino world’s El Dorado.

But thanks to looming law changes the promise is poised to become a reality.

“Everybody has reached for another gear, whether it be the political bodies … or prospective international companies that are interested in coming into Japan,’’ Mr Nisbet said.

“There’s been this moment in time where the Olympics has crystallised thinking around what’s the best way to capitalise on Japan being on the world stage and really driving the next stage of growth that the Abe government is looking to do to reinvigorate the Japanese ­eco­nomy.”

Melco Crown plans to use its record in revitalising the Southbank precinct of Melbourne and its successes in Macau -- as well as its $22bn market capitalisation, and record on probity and problem gambling -- to persuade the Japanese government to choose its bid from a heavyweight field of gaming ­giants.

“The one thing I think does make us stand out from the crowd is we have an incredibly successful business both in Australia and abroad,’’ Mr Nisbet said.

“We are financially sound. We haven’t done things that are crazy or leveraged up our balance sheet to the point where we can’t afford to invest a significant sum of money in Japan. It is well within our means.

“One of those things governments need to look at when they look at who they do business with is: are they going to be around through tough times and good times?

“And I think the one thing that Crown has done through Melco Crown, or on our own, through good times and bad we have reinvested in our properties.”

Mr Nisbet also flagged a high-end production -- along the lines of Melco Crown’s $250m House of Dancing Water show in Macau -- would be a part of its Japan bid.

“We don’t want to just build something that the guy built in Vegas and bring it to Japan. We want to come up with something that’s unique, speaks to the culture, has an entertainment aspect to it,’’ he said.

Mr Nisbet said Melco Crown was in talks with several Japanese corporations -- including some leading multinational firms with operations in Australia -- about joining forces on the bid.

“We think a local partner is a key ingredient. There have been meetings with various companies in Japan. It’s fair to say nothing has solidified yet,’’ he said.

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