Kinmen County residents are preparing to go to the polls on Oct. 28 to vote in a referendum on whether to establish gambling facilities within an international resort in the county. However, the referendum appears to be nothing more than a symbolic gesture.
Matsu County obtained permission in its own casino referendum in 2012, but has yet to build any casino facilities due to legislative hurdles. A draft bill on casino management would need to be passed before any casino could be built on one of the outlying islands and such a bill was already rejected by the Legislative Yuan in July last year.
Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) lawmakers on Friday proposed going a step further and scrapping a law that allows referendums on gambling, which means Kinmen residents might be unable to vote on the issue at all.
However, regardless of what happens with the referendum, the issues that led to it remain. Specifically, gambling proponents on the outlying islands are clearly concerned about economic development and the lack of clear progress on the issue.
Since restrictions were eased in 2003, Kinmen officials have frequently expressed interest in attracting tourists, residents and investors from neighboring Xiamen in China, and now believe that gambling facilities in Kinmen would attract Chinese high rollers.
It is understandable that gambling proponents would see a local gambling industry as potentially very lucrative, given the roughly US$2 billion that gambling generates monthly in Macau. Yet Macau has been developing the industry since 1962, when Stanley Ho’s (何鴻燊) Sociedade de Turismo e Diversoes de Macau began issuing licenses, and has seen investment from Las Vegas casino owners since the early 2000s, when Sands and Wynn began operating there.
Kinmen would need decades to build the industry to the point that it could generate similar revenues.
An influx of high rollers from China is also unlikely, as China has been cracking down on corruption and Macau has reported a decrease in the number of high spenders from China since 2014.
China’s Taiwan Affairs Office Minister Zhang Zhijun (張志軍) in 2015 specifically stated that direct links between Kinmen and China would be put at risk if Kinmen were to approve gambling in casinos.
Clearly, if China is concerned about officials spending lavishly in Chinese-controlled Macau, it is going to be even more so about such spending in Taiwan, where Beijing cannot track or regulate such activity.
That means the county would likely have to rely on Taiwanese and international tourists, but the latter would be hard to attract given the lack of an international airport in the county and insufficient infrastructure, including transportation and accommodations suitable for an influx of international tourists.
Macau already has these things in place and there is no need to promote it to international tourists, who are already familiar with its history.
Kinmen’s tourism strengths lie in the fascination that the county holds in the minds of Taiwanese, who previously could not travel there, given its status as a military outpost. The county also has well-preserved traditional architecture and temples, and is where the majority of Taiwan’s sorghum wine is produced.
Taiwanese also enjoy the county’s beaches and slower pace of life as a contrast to life in the busy cities of Taiwan’s main island. Kinmen’s best bet for attracting international tourists is to play upon these strengths with an international audience.
Marketing the county as a bastion of democracy, as the front line where two ideological adversaries historically faced off and as a place where history seems to stand still, as elements of Taiwan’s past are preserved there, would make the county an attractive destination for international tourists.
Kinmen is smart to promote tourism, but it should remember what makes it unique and special, and play to those strengths.
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