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Casinos again eyed as key to Okinawa tourism

Date Posted: 2005-12-01

Okinawa’s tourism growth is slowing, and will become stagnant if new measures aren’t taken by tourism and industrial companies.

The Duty Free Shopping president, Masaharu Minei, is taking the lead now in reenergizing the concept of casinos in Okinawa, visiting Austria to learn how the systems work in Europe. He took an 11-man team to Austria for a week last month to meet with local leaders and to study the financial pluses.

They traveled together with Austrian finance ministry and casino leaders, asking countless questions on how to capitalize on casino gaming. Austrian Economic Ministry vice governor Joseph Mayer told the Okinawa delegation “casinos are very important attractions that are needed for today’s tourists.” Austria already has casinos generating money for its states. “Casinos bring lots of money,” says Mayer.

Mayer warned though, that careful planning is essential. “If casinos are operated by civilians in private companies, it makes big crimes possible too.” He suggested the better solution is to form joint ventures between government and private enterprise to develop the casino business. In Austria, the government handles the casino business as a state-owned endeavor.

D.F.S. vice president Minei says casinos could be good for Okinawa, and has formed a new company, Entertainment World Okinawa, to jump in. He says his company has been working hard this past year to understand new government structural reform laws that will permit casinos.

Still, there is growing opposition to casinos on Okinawa. “Gambling makes Okinawa’s image go down, and takes it away from being pure Okinawa,” says one detractor. “Casinos make Okinawa fertile soil for crime,” adds another.

Government officials express concerns about public safety, educating young people about the pitfalls of gambling, and how to guard against fraudulent operators.

Okinawa’s tourism efforts are slipping, and industry leaders say something must be done soon. Without new planning, the tourism business could teeter on economic doom. “There are increasing tourist numbers now,” reports a tourism specialist, “but that means only that hotels are selling packages for themselves that are cheap, and without much profit.” He says hotels cannot make a profit without getting new attractions to lure tourists, then hold them on the island.

Tourism officials point to casino gaming, as in Austria, as a drawing card that blends with Okinawa’s beaches and scenic tourism spots.

Prefecture officials weighed in on the issue this week, noting that “pachinko and slot machine gaming is not much different than casinos.” Opponents say they’ll fight casino gaming coming to Okinawa, despite warnings hotels could close or be taken over by international investors. One government official says it’s already starting, with overseas investors snapping up hotel properties on the island. He says the tourism industry must rally with the community and get new activities going quickly.

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