TOKYO/SINGAPORE - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe toured Singapore's two lavish casino resorts on Friday as his country considers allowing casino gambling to boost tourism and attract investment.
Abe, in the city-state to deliver a speech at a regional defence and security conference, spent 40 minutes visiting Marina Bay Sands, the three pronged waterfront resort built by US billionaire Sheldon Adelson's Las Vegas Sands, and then headed over to Resorts World on Sentosa island, owned by Genting Singapore.
Japan, home to 128 million people and the world's third-largest economy, is widely seen as a prize market for casino operators due to its affluent population and close proximity to wealthy Asian gamblers in the region.
Abe, who has so far remained silent on the issue of casinos, was taken round Marina Bay Sands by its chief executive, George Tanasijevich, touring its convention centre and taken to a viewing area to look down on its gaming floor.
He then surprised tourists sunning themselves by the 150-metre long infinity pool on the resort's rooftop by appearing at the water's edge dressed in his suit with members of the media in tow.
Japan has been deliberating opening casinos for more than a decade but the chances have never been higher than now.
While parliament is unlikely to pass a bill in the current parliament session which ends next month, proponents are aiming to pass it in the fall extraordinary session, political and industry sources said on Friday.
"It's logistically difficult for it to pass in the current session," said one political source, adding that he and other supporters of the bill were still hoping to start parliamentary debate next month.
"I would say it's highly likely to pass in the fall."
The same source saw little likelihood legislation would be delayed until next year, which could leave too little time to build the resorts in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
But Toru Mihara, an Osaka University of Commerce professor, said that was a possibility with some politicians still in opposition. "In the worst case, it will be next year. We need to be prepared for that," he said.
If the current bill passes, debate will move on to a second bill concerning concrete regulations, which proponents hope can be passed in 2016.
International casino companies including Las Vegas Sands, Genting, MGM Resorts and Melco Crown Entertainment have all been trying to position themselves ahead of the bill passing. Genting Singapore has set up eight subsidiaries in Japan for investment holding, leisure and related businesses, the company said on Tuesday in a notice to the Singapore stock exchange.
Adelson has said he would spend US$10 billion (S$12.54 billion) on developing a casino resort while rivals have announced investment of around US$5 billion for a casino in either Tokyo or Osaka.
Singapore's two integrated resorts which combine casinos with dining, entertainment, and convention business are the preferred model Japan would emulate, lawmakers have said.
Marina Bay Sands, which cost US$5.4 billion, has helped to boost convention business in Singapore, while Resorts World Sentosa, which houses a Universal Studios theme park and a large aquarium, has helped to lure record numbers of tourists since opening in 2010.
Industry executives have said in private that a Marina Bay Sands-type resort, near Singapore's financial district, would be a good fit for Tokyo while a more leisure-focused resort like Sentosa would be better suited to Osaka or a regional city.