By Thomas Wilson
TOKYO (Reuters) - Melco Resorts & Entertainment Ltd <MLCO.O> will shift its headquarters to Japan should it win a licence to run a casino in the world's next frontier for high-stakes gambling, its chief executive said on Friday.
"I would personally move here while we are building it, and we would move the core management team and headquarters here" from Hong Kong, Lawrence Ho said in an interview in Tokyo, referring to a possible casino resort in Japan.
The comment comes as Japan moves towards allowing large-scale resorts expected to generate billions of dollars for the country and global gambling industry. Japanese casino resorts could earn up to $25 billion a year in revenue, analysts have estimated.
Japan passed a landmark bill to legalise casinos late last year. Details on how to pick locations and regulate the resorts - large-scale projects hosting casinos, hotels and conference space - are still being discussed. A law covering the issue is widely expected to pass through parliament next spring.
Ho, son of erstwhile Macau magnate Stanley Ho, said in February that Melco was willing to outspend rivals to win operating rights in Japan.
U.S. operators MGM Resorts International <MGM.N> and Las Vegas Sands Corp <LVS.N> - widely seen as front-runners for licences - have both said they would invest up to $10 billion in a Japanese casino resort.
Casino operators have been boosting their profile in Japan throughout the year, beefing up staffing and hosting glitzy promotional events in behind-the-scenes efforts to woo local governments and firms as potential partners.
"It's almost like 'speed dating' – sometimes we go into their offices and see our competitors in the waiting rooms," Ho said.
Melco hopes for as large a stake as possible in any operating consortia but remains flexible in its approach, Ho said. It has already sounded out firms in the real estate, transport and financial sectors.
"We already have had discussions with Japanese financial institutions that would be interested to be part of a financing group," Ho said, without elaborating.
Melco runs casinos in Macau, a former Portuguese colony on China's southern coast, and also operates in the Philippines. Ho said he expected the first Japan resort to open in 2024.
The government and casino operators expect resorts to thrive due to a wealthy domestic population and rising numbers of foreign tourists.
"It's not just any ordinary project, and will become the most important project outside Macau," Ho said.
(Reporting by Thomas Wilson; Editing by Christopher Cushing)