The COVID-19 pandemic has been affecting the integrated resort (IR) industry in the Asia Pacific region (and globally) in a profound manner. Whereas many other gaming markets in the region are still suppressed by impacts of the pandemic, the Philippines and Singapore have been leading the industry’s recovery and growth in a post-COVID era, thanks to their diversified product offerings, well-balanced market segments and forward-looking protective measures against the pandemic.
Fueled by solid local market segments and gradually increasing international visitation, the Philippine gaming market has been able to achieve substantial progress, welcoming fresh properties in Clark and Cebu that are poised to become popular tourist destinations in the near future. The two renowned IRs in Singapore have followed a similar path and have prepared for the upcoming expansion stage.
The dynamics in these two markets endorsed the importance of diversification in terms of product offerings, source markets and beyond, which had been emphasized by many before the pandemic and has become even more critical in a post-COVID era.
One of the most remarkable ongoing changes in the Asian gaming landscape is the shift of junket-channeled VIP play to mass-oriented business (including direct in-house premium mass). While the bright side is that mass gaming indeed tends to yield higher operating margin than VIP business, there remains a challenge that often gets overlooked – infrastructure that is capable of handling the required mass visitation that can offset the decrease in premium business and eventually achieve future growth in the long run.
Singapore can play an exemplary role in this aspect. The city state’s champion airport, with superior capacity and connectivity, has further secured its leading position in the region. The government has identified infrastructure as a key pillar of national economic growth and has set up plans to strengthen the roads, rail network and other ecosystem components, making the Lion City ready for the post-COVID chapter of international travel.
Similarly, infrastructure improvements in the Philippines, ranging from enhanced connectivity between Manila and the neighboring regions to newly added terminals at airports in Clark and Cebu, are expected to facilitate rapid recovery and further growth of the country’s gaming industry. Additionally, the Incheon Free Economic Zone in South Korea is widely recognized as a strategic location. Close proximity to the country’s aviation hub provides a significant advantage. With the forthcoming addition of a world-class entertainment resort in the area, the competitive advantage and other synergies are anticipated to be further realized.
Another challenge that surfaced during the pandemic but is expected to linger in post-COVID years is the availability of a quality workforce. Shortages in a skilled workforce have hindered recovery and growth pace across the board, which is especially true for customer-facing service industries including gaming. Mass gaming of a larger scale requires a larger workforce of quality, skill and reliability, which is likely to challenge many operators in the region’s gaming markets.
The Philippines possesses a competitive advantage in this aspect. The local workforce tends to be comprised of fast learners who have the passion to work in most entertainment and hospitality environments. English is used as the primary medium of instruction in the education system, which makes training and development more effective. Additionally, labor costs in the Philippines remain among the most competitive in the ASEAN countries, making it an ideal source of labor for prospective operating needs.
Moreover, other emerging markets, such as Vietnam and Thailand, have consistently gained attention in the global IR community. With a significant domestic economic and demographic base, as well as sizeable international visitation to be resumed, the market potential is poised to attract high-level enthusiasm from prospective IR developers and operators in the near future.
Last but not least, the region’s traditional industry hub, Macau, has been strangled for more than two years by strict pandemic control measures and other factors. While the aforementioned challenges and critical components are all applicable to Macau, it is worth noting that some encouraging signs have recently surfaced, such as the lifting of travel bans on travelers from over 40 countries for the first time since the onset of the pandemic in 2020. Further curbing of restrictions is expected and is likely to propel meaningful recovery of the market. Although considerable uncertainty remains, the pent-up demand (for a long while) from a tremendous marketable base in mainland China just cannot go overlooked.
On balance, we believe that the Asia Pacific gaming markets will continue to evolve in a post-COVID era, with diversification and solutions to other potential challenges remaining critical in the years to come. How the IRs respond to such challenges will contribute to maintaining long-term growth of the industry, to capitalizing on the booming and increasingly wealthy middle class, and to better stimulating tourism and related economic benefits in the region and on a global basis.