Warning signs: Are Singapore’s casinos in trouble?

A decline in gaming revenues suggests that Singapore’s casinos may have to look to other avenues for growth.

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The Marina Bay Sands casino has become an iconic mainstay of the Singapore skyline. Moshe Safdie’s 57-story structure is an architectural sensation. Three high-rise towers hold the 1.2-hectare SkyPark aloft, offering panoramic views over the city. But there are signs that not everything is as stable as it seems in Singapore’s casino sector.

Singapore’s evolution into a casino and resort destination

Rewind to the 1990s. Singapore had already carved out its status as one of Asia’s tiger economies. Businessmen and women arrived in their droves each week. But few would have chosen the city-state as a holiday destination.

Singapore approached its tourism drive in the same way it approaches other social and economic challenges; with ruthless efficiency. It needed to give the businessmen and women a reason to stay.

In 2010, Genting Group opened its Resorts World Sentosa, a luxury casino and resort complex complete with a Universal Studios theme park. Ten weeks later, Las Vegas Sands opened Marina Bay Sands. The two resorts immediately gave visitors a reason to stick around.

The resorts injected cash and jobs into the city

Since 1997, international tourist arrivals have more than doubled. In 2017, 17.4 million tourists arrived in Singapore, tripling the city’s population, and contributing to 4% of the gross domestic product (GDP).

Marina Bay Sands and Resorts World Sentosa played a central role in this uptick in tourist figures. In their first year in operation, the resorts reaped a combined US$5.1 billion in gambling revenue. They generated approximately 45,000 jobs, many of which came from the local work pool. Las Vegas Sands chairman, Sheldon Adelson, made a point of focusing recruitment drives on Singaporean talent.

The tides may be turning for Singapore’s casinos

Recently, there have been indicators that Singapore’s casinos may be heading for a financial wobble. In 2016, both the Resorts World Sentosa and the Marina Bay Sands saw their revenues decline. The Marina Bay Sands posted revenue declines on a year-on-year basis for five consecutive quarters. The Resorts World Sentosa saw its downturn last for seven straight quarters.

Although revenues have recovered, Singapore is in the midst of a VIP player exodus. VIP players are gamblers who deposit more than S$10,000 (US$7,250). In Q4 of 2017, the Marina Bay Sands saw a 4% decline in VIP turnover, and almost a 3% decline in mass-market table revenue. The hotel occupancy rate also dropped by 2.5 points from the previous year, despite the average room rate falling by 1% on 2016 levels.

Las Vegas Sands president and chief operating officer, Robert Goldstein, said he was “disappointed” at the drop in gaming revenues. He added, “I don’t see why there would be any catalyst in the near future to drive that”.

The picture at Resorts World Sentosa is similar. Net profits in Q2 of 2018 were up. However, earnings before interest, taxation, debt, and amortisation (EBITDA) fell by 8% year-on-year. Gaming revenue also fell by 8% from Q2 of 2017. Genting did not provide information on VIP revenues.

In 2016, gaming accounted for around 75% of the total revenue at Marina Bay Sands and Resorts World Sentosa. If the casinos cannot reverse the decline, the profitability of both casinos could suffer.

What is behind the decline in gaming revenue?

Several factors have caused a decline in Singapore’s gaming revenues. Firstly, regional rivals have emerged. South Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia and the Philippines have relaxed gambling laws in recent years. The weaker dong and peso have attracted international visitors.

Between 2012 and 2016, the Filipino gaming industry expanded rapidly. It was worth just US$1 billion in 2012. By 2016, the industry was worth almost US$2.25 billion. The Philippines has capitalised on VIP gamblers from mainland China, who can call their bets into Manila’s casinos by phone.

The rise of gambling apps has also led to a decline in gamblers using brick and mortar casinos. Their convenience is a major draw for the local population, particularly as Singaporeans still have to pay S$100 (US$73) to visit a casino.

What does the future hold for Singapore’s casinos?

As Goldstein pointed out, there is no catalyst on the horizon to bring gaming revenues back to their former heights. Although the government blocks many international gambling sites, apps continue to allow local players to gamble online. As long as players can use apps for free, the casinos will have little luck enticing local Singaporeans to their tables.

For international arrivals, those hoping to travel explicitly to gamble are far more likely to visit the Philippines due to the weaker currency.

Singapore’s tourist numbers offer a glimmer of hope. They continue to climb. 2017 numbers were up 6% on 2016 figures. This may not mean more players at the tables, but it will mean more visitors to the shows, restaurants, SkyPark, and Universal Studios.

The casinos are not going anywhere any time soon. But don’t be surprised if Las Vegas Sands and Genting intensify their efforts to diversify their income streams.

Marina Bay Sands and the Resorts World Sentosa have successfully woven their way into the fabric of Singapore’s tourism industry. They helped build the tourism sector into the vast US$26.8 billion industry it is today.

Providing visitor numbers continue to climb; the two resorts will continue to post healthy revenues, even if their gambling revenues continue to drop. The curtain may be creeping down on Singapore’s brick and mortar gambling sector, but there is no shortage of opportunities to capitalise on its booming tourism industry.