Here we go again: Another referendum is about to be held on whether to allow casinos to be built in Penghu County. The debate over whether to allow gambling on the islands has been going on for many years. The main argument of those who support the plan is that gambling would bring more income for local people, promote development and create new job opportunities.
They also say it would have many other benefits for local residents. Opponents see gambling as a malign economic activity that would bring crime, drugs, sex, pathological gamblers, ecological damage and other negative impacts to tranquil Penghu. Each side has its supporters.
If the establishment of casinos is allowed, it will be extremely difficult for voters to reverse the decision at a later date: A “yes” vote would have an irreversible, long-lasting impact on the county. Therefore, Penghu residents must carefully consider the issue and come to a decision that is in the best long-term interests of the islands.
Advocates of the establishment of casinos mainly appeal to the supposed economic and material benefits that the project would bring. Even so-called conservationists have supported the establishment of gambling tourism on the island, putting forward the economic case and recklessly arguing for ecological conservation — how can they have got it so wrong?
Casinos and ecological conservation are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but if conservationists want to argue that they complement each other, they must provide sufficient scientific evidence to back up their claims. Put another way, do they mean to say that without casinos, Penghu would be unable to advance ecological conservation and tourism? Would local residents be unable to make a living without casinos?
Ecological conservation is an endless job of persuading relevant actors such as local governments, residents and businesses to trust the majority opinion of ecology experts. Of course, conservation requires the support of business, but environmentalists must not allow themselves to be forced into a corner. They cannot ignore the commercial nature of modern society. At the same time, they must avoid falling into the trap of becoming pawns in an immoral industry.
According to the latest Manpower Survey Results — released in the first half by the Directorate-General of Budget, Accounting and Statistics — Penghu had an unemployment rate of 3.7 percent — the lowest in the nation. The primary reason for this is the active development of tourism on the islands. Average per capita annual income in Penghu is NT$638,800 — the 10th-highest among Taiwan’s major cities and counties.
These official data show that Penghu’s economy is far from languishing in the bottom ranks of Taiwan’s economic table. In addition, the data clearly show how tourism has been used to create economic growth in the county. They also call into question the supposedly urgent need to establish casinos in Penghu, a highly uncertain and risky industry.
Modern economic utility analysis has proved that gambling actually diminishes total utility value in a society. At present, it seems there is no need for Penghu residents to overturn their opposition to casinos, which they already rejected in a previous referendum.
Penghu comprises 90 islands and islets, like a string of pearls scattered across the sea. Its varied columnar basalt cliffs are internationally recognized as world-class natural landscapes. In addition, Penghu’s waters contain an abundance of fish, and a rich cultural legacy was left behind by its wise early inhabitants. These include the shihu (石滬, stone fish traps); the singing of traditional baoge (褒歌) songs and the honeycombed dry stone walls (蜂巢田) that partition the fields.
These aspects of Penghu have shaped an ecological and cultural landscape that is able to attract tourists from all walks of life. This power to attract visitors is a precious asset that has supported the lives of generations of Penghu residents.
Admittedly, tourism in Penghu has encountered bottlenecks in recent years — the problem is especially acute during the winter months, when the county’s tourism industry virtually grinds to a halt. How to integrate all of Penghu’s resources in order to make tourism and travel in the county even more special is a key problem that needs to be tackled.
For example, one solution would be to cultivate the unique local fish varieties and then integrate them into local cuisine and tourist activities. In addition, the chaos caused by the unrestrained use of scooters in the county could be resolved by the introduction of electric scooters and the gradual implementation of low-carbon initiatives to create a string of low-carbon islands.
In addition, aside from snorkeling and scuba diving, tourists who want to experience marine life usually visit an aquarium. In the past, Penghu’s aquarium was operated by the government and for a time enjoyed a favorable reputation. Later, operation of the aquarium was entrusted to a series of private companies — with poor results. The aquarium is now temporally closed and has deprived Penghu’s Magong City (馬公) of one of its tourist attractions.
The primary task of any reform of Penghu’s tourism industry is to strengthen the unique character and ecological protection of the islands and develop the cultural and educational potential of its marine environment — without repeating disastrous polices that pursued short-term commercial gain and neglected any long-term strategic plan.
In the previous referendum on whether to allow casinos to be built, the majority of Penghu residents voted “no.” The key question is whether residents who have moved to Penghu in recent years have been able to obtain sufficient information on the subject in order to make an informed decision and therefore vote in the same way as the islands’ older residents. These are the voters that the campaign groups both for and against casinos should be targeting.
Only in free and democratic societies does the public enjoy the rights of freedom of expression. In light of the recent acts of violence that have taken place in Penghu in connection with the referendum, the government and the police have a duty to ensure the peaceful conclusion of the plebiscite. The referendum on whether to allow casinos is a question that concerns the future sustainable development of Penghu.
Penghu residents share a common destiny as one community. They should make their views known to their fellow islanders, since together, they are the ones who will have to live with the result.
Du Yu is chief executive officer of the Chen-Li Task Force for Agricultural Reform.
Translated by Edward Jones
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