By Byron Kaye
SYDNEY, Feb 20 () - Australia's biggest casino company Crown Resorts Ltd reported on Wednesday a sharp decline in spending by wealthy Chinese tourists at its properties, pushing its shares down in their biggest one-day fall in more than two years.
Crown, which is owned 47 percent by billionaire James Packer, also posted a weaker than expected profit for the six months to December. Turnover from "VIPs" - largely Chinese tourists on package holidays - fell 12 percent compared to a 16 percent rise in the year-ago period.
"We're seeing casual restaurants doing better than premium restaurants," he added.
The decline shows the far-reaching effects of a cooling in Chinese spending that has already driven exporters like Australian vitamin maker Blackmores Ltd to lower profit guidance and iPhone maker Apple Inc to issue a revenue warning.
That has been against the backdrop of a China-U.S. trade war and a Sino-Australian diplomatic dispute over accusations of undue political interference.
Shares of Crown fell as much as 6.5 percent on Wednesday, their biggest daily percentage drop since October 2016 when 18 of its staff were arrested in China for breaking local laws by selling gambling trips there. The broader market was down 0.2 percent.
"As a destination for Chinese money, particularly on the discretionary side, we have been putting up a fair barrier," said James McGlew, executive director of corporate stockbroking at Argonaut Ltd.
"There's clearly a mood in China that Australia is a little on the nose. That has to feed through."
Since the China arrests, Crown has pulled back from its Asia expansion plans and instead relied on high-rolling Chinese tourists at home to grow profit.
The company is counting on the VIP market to pay for a new A$2.2 billion casino on the Sydney waterfront.
But while tourist numbers are up - 1.4 million Chinese tourists visited Australia in 2018, up 13 percent - the amount they are spending is in decline, says Crown.
"The new Sydney development should help ... but if VIP is weak because China is slowing further, the initial earnings contribution will be weak too once it opens," said Nathan Bell, a portfolio manager at InvestSmart.
Gambling revenue in the Chinese island of Macau, the world's biggest casino destination, fell in January for the first time in more than two years partly due to slowing economic growth and the effects of trade tensions.
Crown gave no outlook on Wednesday for its VIP business.
The company said normalised net profit, which removes variance in win rates, grew less than 1 percent in the half-year to A$194.1 million ($139 million). Pre-tax profit came in at A$432.5 million compared with analyst forecasts of A$450 million.
Normalised revenue fell 1.2 percent, and the company kept its interim dividend steady at 30 Australian cents.
($1 = 1.3961 Australian dollars)
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