Sun, Mar 09, 2003 - Page 17 News List

Facing up to a gambling problem

Taiwan loves gambling, but it's illegal. As more casinos are built in the region and online betting becomes more popular, this status quo is looking increasingly tenuous

By Jules Quartly  /  STAFF REPORTER

"But it's interesting to note that not long ago Yu Cheng-hsien pledged zero growth in the crime rate ... and now all of a sudden 300 people are sent to the police."

Lee said it was unlikely these prosecutions would be made in the end and the punters would likely receive small fines or probation if they were, but the local agents could be "severely punished" for setting up a public gambling place and promoting gaming.

There are over 2,000 online betting Web sites that can be accessed in Taiwan, some of them Chinese-language. They promote online casinos, video games and keno, as well as betting.

Blandford said gambling operations run by companies based in the US were raking in gaming losses of over US$500 million a year from Taiwan customers on major US sports alone. "There is a huge underground supply for betting in Taiwan," he said.

As the Sportingbet case shows, there has been a vigorous public policy against gambling, but an equally strong desire to carry on regardless has led to the current Janus-faced position: On the one side there seems to be zero tolerance, but on the other side there is the state-sponsored lottery -- which brought in revenues of NT$79 billion last year.

Also, many Taiwanese figure if you can't gamble here then do it elsewhere. This can mean calling relatives abroad to place a wager, or making the pilgrimage to Las Vegas -- as over 85,000 Taiwanese do so annually. Others catch a ship from Keelung that steams around in international waters for night-and-day gambling action before returning home.

During last year's recession, a Chinese-language newspaper said gambling houses in the Philippines were packed with punters from Taiwan hoping to win back loses made on stocks. Flights to Macau, Cebu and Subic Bay in the Philippines were all full, it reported.

Added to the rollcall of betting that doesn't officially exist, there are informal bookies in workplaces, on campuses and in the markets, and illegal syndicates that give odds on anything from women's soccer to the result of a legislative election.

Like any other gambler, Taiwan is having difficulty facing up to the fact it has a problem.

Other countries are not so shy and spy huge profits. US gaming analysts at Bearns Stearns who were looking at investing in casinos on the archipelago of Penghu looked at the potential success of such a venture and concluded: "The Asian population within a five-hour flight [from Taiwan] has the highest propensity and frequency of wagering of any demographic in the world."

Though Macau is the only place in the region with a major gaming industry, other Asian countries are reacting to pent up demand for gambling. A state in India is considering allowing casinos, the issue is developing in Japan and Thailand is said to be enacting legislation this year that will see a casino in Pattaya.

An insider at the Ministry of the Interior told the Taipei Times that the attitude of the government toward gambling was of "effective management."

"This has been a consistent principle since Yu Cheng-hsien's predecessor Chang Po-ya (張博雅) was in office. From the government's point of view, it has to be very careful about managing gambling since it might involve the mafia and lead to dire consequences," he said.

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