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Spurned in Mass., Mohegan Sun turns attention to Asia

Tribe aims for jet-setters with $1.6 billion casino complex at a South Korean airport

The proposed casino at Incheon Airport near Seoul would be at the center of a complex that includes a hotel and an amusement park.
The proposed casino at Incheon Airport near Seoul would be at the center of a complex that includes a hotel and an amusement park.mohegan sun

So this is what a jilted casino does for a rebound.

Six months after losing out in the sweepstakes to win a casino license in Massachusetts, Mohegan Sun is back with a wildly ambitious Plan B: A $1.6 billion gambling resort at one of the world’s busiest travel hubs, the Incheon International Airport in South Korea.

The proposal, made in partnership with the authority that runs the airport, calls for building Korea’s largest casino, with 250 roulette and blackjack tables and 1,500 slot machines. It will compete against others for a single license to be issued by the South Korean government, expected by the end of this year.

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The Mohegan Sun gambling operation would be at the center of an even larger development, which would include a private jet terminal, a twin-tower luxury hotel with 1,000 rooms, a 20,000-seat arena, an indoor-outdoor amusement park, and nearly 200,000 square feet of retail, food, art, and live entertainment space.

“It’s going to be a spectacular, multifaceted destination casino resort,” said Mitchell Etess, the chief executive of the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority. High-rollers “can get on a private jet, land, and check right into the hotel. It’d be perfect for James Bond.”

British secret agents, of course, are unlikely to account for much of the casino’s revenue. The real targets are wealthy businessmen from China and other Asian countries.

The dominance of Macau, once the region’s gambling hub, is fading amid a Chinese government crackdown on corruption, gambling, and travel by its officials. Other countries, including Indonesia and Singapore, are now vying for a share of the cash fleeing from Macau.

The Incheon airport, with its immense traffic and close proximity to Asia’s economic centers, is well-situated to compete in that scramble. On an island 30 miles west of Seoul, it serves more than 45 million travelers annually and is only a few hours by air from Beijing.

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“The airport authority is very aggressive,” Etess said. “They’re seeing these other [casino] projects in places like Singapore, and what’s happening in Macau. We both want to capitalize on what’s taking place in Asia.”

South Korean citizens are largely forbidden from gambling, and the gambling sections of the Mohegan Sun complex would admit only patrons with foreign passports. Non-gambling areas, including a large display on Native American history, would be open to everyone.

The Mohegan Sun agreement with the Incheon International Airport Corp. calls for the partners to have a detailed design for the 800-acre site by the end of the year.

Etess likes the tribe’s odds, given its partnership with the local airport agency. Others are skeptical.

“I don’t know why the Koreans would give the only big resort casino to an American company,” said Bill Thompson, a longtime industry analyst at the University of Nevada Las Vegas.

Even if Mohegan Sun prevails, Thompson doubts China would stand by while Korea siphons off its wealthy gamblers.

“As tired as China is of seeing money run off to Macau, it will be even more of a loss to the Chinese economy if gambling money goes to Korea,” he said. “Whatever visa restrictions they’ve placed on travel to Macau will eventually be placed on people going to Korea.”

In New England, Mohegan Sun and rival Foxwoods Resort Casino for years reigned supreme as the only legal Las Vegas-styled gambling emporiums. More recently, both have struggled with large debts, while revenues have leveled off. Now they face the prospects of new competition from other East Coast states that may cut substantially into their customer bases.

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“They realize the entire Northeast is now going to be saturated with casinos, and their main casino in Connecticut is going to be in trouble,” said the Rev. Richard McGowan, an economics professor at Boston College who tracks the gaming industry. For Mohegan Sun, “[South Korea] is their last big bet.”

Penn National Gaming is scheduled to open the 1,250-slot Plainridge Park Casino in Plainville in June. MGM Resorts has broken ground for an $800 million casino in Springfield. And Steve Wynn, the billionaire casino mogul who beat out Mohegan Sun for the coveted Boston-area casino license, hopes to open a $1.7 billion casino in Everett by 2018.

The threat these projects pose to Mohegan Sun is not academic.

“We’re going to take their best customers,” Wynn said of Mohegan Sun in an interview with the Globe in September, days after winning the Boston-area license.

Mohegan Sun was a partner in Suffolk Downs’ plan for a casino on the Revere side of the racetrack. The failed bid was costly and time-consuming. It is still not over.

In January, Mohegan Sun and the cities of Revere, Somerville, and Boston sued the Massachusetts Gaming Commission to block it from awarding the license to Wynn. The lawsuits demand the process of selecting a casino operator begin anew. The commission has defended its license competition process as fair and thorough.

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Sean Murphy and Martin Finucane of the Globe Staff contributed to this report. Dan Adams can be reached at dadams@globe.com.