Seoul casinos bet on China’s low rolling shopping gamblers

'Low rollers', whose bets are small but large in number, are the new targets of Seoul casino operators, presenting a challenge to Macau

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 May, 2015, 7:06am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 May, 2015, 6:01pm

The dealing rooms of Seoul's foreigners-only casinos are echoing to the sound of Putonghua as operators target a new breed of 'low-roller' gamblers - Chinese shoppers.

The country's casino operators are luring Chinese tourists, offering goods such as free rice cookers and Apple iPads in giveaways on the way to the gambling floor. Amid record visitor numbers, South Korean casinos are betting on growing Chinese tourism to build trade, while still competing with rival Asia hubs to land big-money gamblers known as "whales".

In Paradise Walkerhill in Seoul, South Korea's biggest casino firm Paradise is targeting people such as Chen Jie Yi, a 27-year-old from Beijing on a recent tour group visit with friends. Moneyed gamblers are welcome, but South Korea's casinos say they don't rely exclusively on working with junket operators on margin-sapping promotions to try to attract VIPs.

"It's a lot smaller than Macau," said Chen after checking out the Walkerhill casino, referring to the glitzy gambling hub long-favoured by China's high rollers. "The service is pretty good ... I'm more looking forward to the shopping."

The number of Chinese visitors to South Korea with money to burn is expecting to keep growing after last year's near 50 per cent surge to a record 6 million. With hot South Korean goods such as cosmetics a draw, shopping is the main attraction, and casinos have rolled out services for tour groups, including duty-free shopping and dinner shows, in search of a bigger slice of the US$10 billion Chinese visitors spent in South Korea in 2014.

Paradise said the number of Chinese visitors playing games like their favoured baccarat at its five casinos across South Korea jumped 51 per cent in the fourth quarter last year, but gaming revenue rose just 3.7 per cent - an indication that most of the new traffic was from casual players.

State-run Grand Korea Leisure Co (GKL) is joining Paradise in boosting capacity this year in a bid to take advantage of record numbers of Chinese tourists. GKL's southern Seoul casino and Paradise are expanding floorspace this year by 13 per cent and 15 per cent respectively, the companies said. The targeting of tourist shoppers, as well as higher rollers, in South Korea's casinos contrasts with other Asian gaming centres, which are becoming more active in efforts to lure 'Very Very Important' (VVIP) gamblers and others at the high end of the mass market.

These big spenders helped build Macau into the world's biggest casino magnet before a Beijing crackdown on lavish spending resulted in many of the high-rollers deserting casinos in the former Portuguese colony.

Casino VIP revenue per Chinese visitor to South Korea last year was just US$164, according to Morgan Stanley, the smallest take among six Asian countries listed. That compared with US$1,646 for the Philippines and US$1,716 for Singapore.

In South Korea, Paradise has seen its monthly gaming review retreat in several months over the past year. But in Macau casino revenue has shrunk for 11 straight months.

"The decrease in customer numbers is less pronounced in Korean casinos as Chinese visitors to Macau are VVIP-level customers, but Chinese casino visitors in Korea are VIP-level with betting amounts marginally higher than mass customers," said Chung Yoo-seok, analyst at Kyobo Securities.

In the next step in its efforts to compete with its neighbours, South Korea is encouraging development of big "integrated resort" casinos, the first of which will open in 2017 near the country's main airport in Incheon.

Karen Tang, an analyst at Deutsche Bank, said gross gaming revenue in 2015 was likely to grow 16 per cent at South Korea's casinos.

"Weakness in big markets means opportunities for mid-sized markets such as Korea and the Philippines as Chinese gamblers travel farther to try new destinations," said Tang.