Sun, Jan 22, 2006 - Page 17 News List

Another roll of the dice

Taiwan has been contemplating allowing gambling on its outlying islands, but could miss the boat if it does not act soon

By Gavin Phipps  /  STAFF REPORTER

Whether you consider gambling to be a social ill or you see no harm in putting the odd wager on a craps game, it's a fact that the legalization of gambling and the opening of casinos on one or more of the nation's outlying islands would be financially beneficial for Taiwan in terms of tax revenue, tourism and job creation.

Every year hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese nationals travel to Australia, Macau and the US in order to have a flutter and the amount of revenue casinos earn from these gamblers is phenomenal.

Fifteen-percent of the US$230 million taken by the Sands Casino in Macau in its opening year came from Taiwanese gamblers and 20 percent of the US$100million taken on the Baccarat tables of Los Vegas' MGM Grand annually comes from Taiwanese nationals.

Regardless of whether future casinos attract overseas gamers from the 350 million people who live 1.5 hours flying time from Penghu, or simply generates a locally based gambling industry, the stakes are huge.

While it is still a hypothetical situation, industry insiders estimate that a US$300 million casino could break even in a mere in six months.

"Hong Kong has a population of 6 million and of these, those who travel to Macau spend US$1 billion a year in casinos," said Larry Woolf, one-time CEO of the MGM Grand and chairman of the Los Vegas-based gaming development agency, The Navegante Group. "Taiwan has a population of 22 million people. Most of them have a decent disposable income so it doesn't take a lot of math to work out that [Taiwan] is a huge market."

The numbers speak for themselves and neighboring countries are also aware of them. Singapore has decided to legalize gambling and other Asian nations, including Japan and Thailand, are set to follow in the not so distant future. If Taiwan doesn't act soon then it could blow its chance of grabbing a piece of the lucrative gaming market.

According to news reports two weeks ago, when Singapore finalized its bidding process for the construction of a casino in preparation for the March 31 deadline, only four companies of the original 14 wanted to continue with their bids, citing problems with the destination and stringent guidelines as reasons behind their sudden lack of interest.

Also, according to the reporters, there was interest in setting up in Taiwan instead.

Several large companies -- which include the late Kerry Packer's multinational entertainment giant PBL and Macau casino magnet Stanley Ho -- have been monitoring Taiwan as an alternative to Singapore.

On the table

Several of the industry's biggest guns are in fact already preparing to put their money on Taiwan.

A report carried by a US-based online gambling industry publication said that representatives of the Las Vegas Sands Inc (LVSI), a parent company of The Venetian, have already met with President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) to discuss the issue.

In a statement issued by the company after the meeting, Sheldon Adelson, the chairman of the board and principal owner of LVSI was quoted as saying, "President Chen encouraged [LSVI] to invest in the tourism industry economy of Taiwan, but did not make any commitments to permit gaming ... If the government were to adopt a favorable policy toward gaming LSVI would be interested in pursuing a gaming venture in the country."

The convivial meeting was overshadowed, however, after a report in a popular Chinese-language daily reported that the then interior minister, Chang Po-ya (張博雅) had produced a statement in which she misquoted Chen by stating that, "[Chen] had agreed to permit the company to invest US$2.5 million in a proposed project."

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