“Synergy” is the Keyword for Wakayama’s IR Bid

For many observers, Wakayama Prefecture’s bid to gain one of the three available IR licenses has looked like a long-shot, most of all because of the geography that places it so near the anticipated Osaka Yumeshima development. To their credit, however, the Wakayama Prefectural Government has tried to take this perceived weakness and turn it into a strength—and the keyword is “synergy.”

The notion is that the central government should grant a license for the Wakayama Marina City location because, not only will it not overlap with or cut into the Osaka IR, but that the existence of each could help strengthen the other in a Kansai-wide development.

As the bird flies, there is not much distance between central Osaka city and Wakayama city, but there’s no contesting that the atmosphere is radically different. Osaka is one of Japan’s great, thriving urban centers, while Wakayama well represents the nation’s aging, declining rural regions.

Indeed, even the neighborhood directly surrounding the central JR Wakayama Station is remarkably quiet even in the middle of the business day. By around 8 pm, almost every store and restaurant is closed, and the area looks nearly deserted. More of the city’s economic life seems to run along National Highway 42, which itself passes near the potential IR site at Marina City.

The prefectural government has argued that the IR it wants to build would focus on attracting wealthy to a relaxed, resort-style facility, much more low-key than the mass market focus of the giant Yumeshima facility. Water sports and tourism of local mountains and shrines would form its setting. The experience would be so different from Osaka that they couldn’t really be said to be in competition at all.

The Wakayama Prefectural Government has clearly been successful in selling this vision to the handful of international IR operators which have focused on this venue. At present, it seems that Groupe Lucien Barrière of France, Bloomberry Resorts of the Philippines, and the Suncity Group of Macau have put their chips on Wakayama, and each of them have become apostles of the same vision being sold by the prefectural authorities.

While Wakayama Governor Yoshinobu Nisaka has been the driving force for the local IR bid from the beginning, there was a potential political problem he needed to resolve, and that was the view of Wakayama Mayor Masahiro Obana that the casino facility should be limited to those wealthy foreign visitors and that locals should not be allowed to enter. Indeed, Obana won reelection in July 2018 on this platform.

Quite recently, in late December 2019, Obana made comments suggesting that he was now willing to go along with the governor’s plan. Speaking of his own foreigner-only casino concept, Obana observed, “If you look at the national government’s basic plan, it’s true that my idea isn’t realistic.”

Another potential hurdle that has been crossed is that now Osaka’s leaders are helping to pitch Wakayama’s vision of “synergy” as well.

“We like to work together to see a resort-style IR utilizing Wakayama’s characteristics,” said Osaka Governor Hirofumi Yoshimura last week, “Both the size of the city and the target operators are different. I don’t see them as a rival. Yokohama is the rival.”

If one assumes that both Yokohama and Osaka are heading towards approval by the national government, that leaves only one license remaining for a smaller, regional IR.

Wakayama’s most dangerous rival was probably Tomakomai city in Hokkaido, but that threat appears to be fading away as the Hokkaido Prefectural Government backs away from IR development. That leaves the Nagasaki Huis Ten Bosch IR plan as the main competitor.

Wakayama is hoping that economic “synergy” with the Osaka Yumeshima IR will trump the more distant initiative in Kyushu. (AGB Nippon)