(Adds Korea’s plan to approve casinos, competitors)
By Joyce Lee
SEOUL, Feb 12 (Reuters) - Hong Kong’s Chow Tai Fook Enterprises Ltd plans to invest $2.6 billion to build a casino resort near South Korea’s largest airport, local authorities said, the latest big bet on the country’s potential as a gambling destination for Chinese tourists.
Chinese visitors make up more than half the business in South Korea’s casino, all but one of which is open only to foreigners. South Korea, enjoying a surge of tourists from China, has said it will approve about two new casino resorts and hopes to select operators this year.
An official in Incheon, the city west of Seoul where the resort is planned, said Chow Tai Fook will need approval for a casino licence by the central government, which the city expects some time this year.
Casino operators are looking to invest in South Korea, a short plane ride from northeastern China, despite Beijing’s fresh drive to crack down on casinos in other countries seeking to lure Chinese gamblers.
Last month, Philippines’ Bloomberry Resorts Corp said it was planning a casino and entertainment complex in Incheon, its maiden overseas venture.
A spokeswoman for Chow Tai Fook could not be immediately reached.
Chow Tai Fook Enterprises, an affiliate of Chow Tai Fook Jewellery Group, had previously committed to work with a partner for a casino in Brisbane, Australia, but no decision has been announced.
Its resort in South Korea is expected to include a foreigner-only casino, hotel, shopping, entertainment and convention facilities and will be built in two stages between 2015-2019 and 2019-2022, respectively, the Incheon Free Economic Zone agency said in a statement.
The site is near where a consortium of U.S.-based Caesars Entertainment Corp and Lippo Ltd as well as a joint venture of local player Paradise Co Ltd and Japan’s Sega Sammy Holdings Inc plan their respective casino resorts.
South Korea bans locals from entering 16 of its 17 casinos, and has so far said new licences would only be approved for foreigner-only casinos.
The number of Chinese tourists to South Korea grew by 42 percent in 2014. Paradise, South Korea’s largest casino operator, said in a filing that around 63.4 percent of betting volume at its casinos are from Chinese VIP punters. (Additional reporting by Farah Master; Editing by Tony Munroe and Anand Basu)