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Have Singapore's casinos lost their mojo?

Leslie Shaffer | Writer for CNBC.com
Have Singapore's casinos lost their mojo?

Singapore's casinos opened their doors in 2010 with great expectations for the market's potential growth, but some analysts believe the party may be over.

"The stage is set for disappointment. We think the Singapore gaming market cannot grow," Macquarie (ASX:MQG-AU) said in a note last week, noting that the city-state's gross gaming revenue (GGR) has stalled at around $6 billion a year since 2011, the first full year of operations for the two casinos.

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Singapore's integrated resorts, Marina Bay Sands and Resorts World Sentosa, which house the casinos as well as other facilities such as convention space and a theme park, can steer the fate of the city-state's economy. The GGR revenue came in at around 1.6 percent of the city-state's 2013 gross domestic product (GDP) of around $372.8 billion.

"After three big years, tourist arrivals in Singapore have started to decline (down 3 percent year-to-July) and most importantly, Chinese visitors who form more than 50 percent of Singapore VIP volume have fallen by 29 percent year-to-date," Macquarie said. VIP volumes make up around 80 percent of the city-state's total gaming volume, it said.

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"A strong Singapore dollar (Exchange:SGD=) and new casinos in Asia are eating into the Singapore gaming pie further," it said, noting that many Asian countries opened casinos on a similar model, spurred by the city-state's success.

"While the Philippines has already seen four new private casinos since then, other countries like Vietnam, Korea, Sri Lanka, Cambodia and Japan are gearing up to push new casino legislations and open new casinos by 2020," Macquarie said. "There is a high probability of Singapore casinos' VIP clientele cannibalization by new casinos in Asia."

Others also believe the casinos' glory days may be behind them.

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"Gaming revenues in Singapore have already plateaued," said Carey Wong, an analyst at OCBC (Singapore Exchange: OCBC-SG). "Singapore has a very small captive market. The government has been [clear] from the start that they don't want locals spending way too much time there."

Singapore has actively tried to minimize the impact of gambling on its population of around 5.6 million, using measures such as steep entry fees for residents as well as allowing locals to put family members on a list of people barred from entering.

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But Wong expects that the drop in overseas visitors may be temporary, noting that it's partly due to China's economic slowdown and corruption crackdown.

"Once things die down, we'll see the return of these high rollers," he said. "From an Asian perspective, Asians will gamble regardless of good times or bad. It's different from a Western perspective, where gaming is more for leisure."

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It's not clear how many share Wong's confidence of a rebound.

In a note last week, CIMB (Kuala Lumpur Stock Exchange: CIMB-MY) said that in a recent marketing trip to Europe, investors showed little interest.

"There did not seem to be any interest in Singapore-listed transport or gaming plays," it said, noting that Genting Singapore (Singapore Exchange: GENS-SG) and Genting Hong Kong (Hong Kong Stock Exchange: 678-HK) are among its least-preferred stocks on the Singapore market.

-By CNBC.Com's Leslie Shaffer; Follow her on Twitter @LeslieShaffer1

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