Following the footsteps of Macau, Singapore, and the Philippines, Japan appears poised to clear away regulatory barriers and allow legalized gambling in casinos.
Analysts at Citi believe that Japan could become the second-largest gambling venue in Asia after Macau. Japan could generate gross gaming revenue of $13.4 to $15 billion annually.
The Singapore example
The topic of opening a casino in Singapore can be traced back to 2005 when key legislation and administrative infrastructure were put in place. Five years later two integrated casino resorts opened their doors, Las Vegas Sands (NYSE:LVS)' Marina Bay Sands and Resorts World's Sentosa. Within two years tourism receipts in the country doubled from SGD 12.6 billion in 2009 to SGD 23.0 billion in 2012.
The Japanese government has an objective of increasing the number of overseas tourists from 8.37 million in 2012 to 18 million in 2016, 25 million in 2020, and 30 million in 2030. These aggressive targets could serve as a subtle hint that casinos, as part of integrated tourist resorts, are expected to play a big role in Japan's ability to meet these targets.
How to invest
Several key international players have legitimate shots of receiving gaming licences in Japan. Las Vegas Sands would be the top pick along with Melco Crown. (NASDAQ:MLCO) Meanwhile MGM Resorts (NYSE:MGM) is unlikely to emerge a winner.
The likely choice
Las Vegas Sands has a tremendous record in Asia, and the company will generate billions of dollars of free cash flow from its properties around the world in 2016. The financing for any Japan project should be no problem, especially after management decided to forego its $30 billion investment in Spain.
The company only has one project in the pipeline, a $2.7 billion investment in its Parisian project in Cotai, Macau that is set to open by the end of 2015. Las Vegas Sands became the first foreign player to open casinos in both the Macau Peninsula and Cotai, and the company can leverage this experience in Japan.
Las Vegas Sands' Chief Operating Officer said during the company's conference call on Oct. 18 that "Japan would obviously be the most expensive investment we've ever made from a single property standpoint. The estimates range anywhere from $6 billion in Tokyo and up."
George Tanasijevich, president of Marina Bay Sands, has visited Japan every month for the past seven years to lay the groundwork for the company's potential expansion into the country.
Investors need to look no further than comments coming from Las Vegas Sands CEO Sheldon Adelson for proof that the company will likely emerge a winner in Japan.
Anybody, any journalist, any analyst, anybody in the politics, in government, says that the frontrunner by far in the close position is Las Vegas Sands Corporation, because we're the experts in both of what they're looking for. They're looking to create tourism. Our Integrated Resorts, in the first 24 months, increased tourism in Singapore by 41%. They generally acknowledge, we have changed Las Vegas with our business model and convention base. We changed Macau, everybody in the government would acknowledge that. We've changed Singapore, and we can easily change any other city...I think that we may have a -- caught between a rock and a hard place, meaning we think that Tokyo wants us and Osaka wants us. So we've notified both governments, we're happy to accommodate them.
Asian operator holds "home field" advantage
Melco Crown's City of Dreams is performing very well in Macau, and according to Foolish analyst Travis Hoium the company has been taking market share from Las Vegas Sands, which proves that it can compete with the "big boys." The casino operator's second Macau property, Studio City, is slated for completion in 2015.
Building on its success in Macau, Melco Crown has entered the Philippines market to jointly develop a casino property in Manila Bay, set to open in 2014, which proves that the company can succeed across Asia.
Melco Crown recently donated $10 million to Tokyo's University of the Arts with the intention of fostering cultural development in Japan, and the company has been studying the Japanese gaming market for several years.
Melco Crown's Lawrence Ho told Bloomberg TV that he believes his company's Asian roots give it an advantage in any new potential Asian market in regards to respecting and preserving the unique culture. Ho also revealed that this company is ready and able to invest $4 to $5 billion in Japan.
Don't bet on it
MGM Resorts has an objective of lowering its target long-term debt to $10 billion over the coming years from its current $13 billion. The company is currently heavily investing in its MGM Cotai resort, which is expected to open in 2016 or 2017 with an investment cost of $2.5 billion. This might discourage MGM Resorts from aggressively pursuing any Japanese opportunity.
Naturally, Las Vegas Sands stole the stage at the gaming conference by revealing potential project designs and explaining that the company is more than prepared to finance any project with its existing operating cash.
MGM Resorts president Bill Hornbuckle "wasn't as forthcoming with the design prototypes" during a company presentation at the Union Gaming Development Conference in Tokyo. The company has also revealed that it could invest "several" billion dollars, but it shied away from offering anything concrete and substantial.
MGM Resorts has simply not been as public as Las Vegas Sands and Melco Crown have been in revealing its Japan intentions, and the company is currently on the outside looking in.
Melco Crown is also a top pick and its Asian roots provide the company with an advantage in an extremely culturally sensitive environment.
Investors looking for extreme long-term exposure to the Japanese gaming market should invest in Las Vegas Sands or Melco Crown, as they are the clear early choices to succeed in the country.