Macau casino mogul Lawrence Ho appears likely to be the first major gaming operator to move into the Russian market, as his company has signed an agreement to open a casino there. The move signals Russia’s intention to become a major player in the lucrative Asian casino market.

In the Zone

Ho’s casino-resort would be located in Primorye, one of four special zones set aside by Russia after a 2009 law banned all other casino gambling. The region of Primorye borders China and Korea, and the casino is expected to be placed on the outskirts of Vladivostok.

“A lot of people don’t realize that Vladivostok is an Asian casino opportunity that happens to be in Russia,” Dean Macomber told The Wall Street Journal. Macomber is the president of Macomber International Inc., an American company that has consulted with the Russian casino industry.

That prime location could be the key to getting serious names into the Russian casino market. Most major casino brands have shied away from investing in the country due to a murky regulatory system and concerns over heavy corruption. But the combination of the location and tax incentives have made a casino in Primorye a more interesting proposition.

Like Father, Like Son

Lawrence Ho is the son of Stanley Ho, the Macau-based casino tycoon who once held a monopoly on all of the gambling in the Chinese enclave. Now that many international casino corporations have come to Macau, the younger Ho – along with Australian casino giant James Packer, who serves as co-chairman of Melco Crown Entertainment with Ho – is looking to expand outside his family’s traditional stomping ground.

Along with the project near Vladivostok, Ho and Packer are also building a resort casino in the Philippines that is expected to open next year.

Earlier this year, it was reported in Russian media that five different casino builders were allowed to present designs to the Primorye government. It is unclear exactly how many companies will be invited to open casinos in the region.

Should Vladivostok be turned into a casino hub, it could eventually become a serious rival of Macau. For many Chinese gamblers – particularly those in northern China – the Russian city would be a much shorter trip. The Wall Street Journal points out in their report that a flight from Beijing to Vladivostok would take about 2.5 hours, compared to three hours and 45 minutes to Macau. Of course, the Russian city would have to overcome Macau’s advantages as an established casino center that many gamblers have been visiting for years, if not decades.