Sun, Dec 07, 2008 - Page 3 News List

FEATURE: Penghu awaits casinos with mixed feelings

By Richard Hazeldine  /  STAFF REPORTER

A boat sits on the sand at Shihli Beach, Penghu, on Nov. 15. The legislature is expected to pass an amendment next year allowing gambling in Penghu.

PHOTO: RICHARD HAZELDINE, TAIPEI TIMES

The 64 islands that make up Penghu County have long been famous for their stunning beaches, stark windswept landscapes and pristine environment. But for many residents, these beautiful islands are equally known as an economic backwater that young people just can’t wait to leave.

Penghu suffers from all the problems normally associated with rural places that rely heavily on aquaculture and agriculture: economic marginalization, rampant unemployment and an aged population exacerbated by the flight of youth.

This is the reason, local officials say, why the central government funds the islands to the tune of NT$6.2 billion (US$185 million) annually, or roughly NT$70,000 per year for each of the 90,000 residents.

Yet all that could soon change if, as predicted, the legislature passes a revision to the Offshore Islands Development Act (離島建設條例) early next year that will decriminalize gambling on Penghu and the nation’s other outlying islands.

The bill is nearing the end of the second of three readings in the legislature and, if passed, will allow the islands to open casinos, bringing much-needed jobs and boosting local revenues.

Those involved in the legislative process believe the passage of the bill is a mere formality, as it enjoys the strong support of both the premier and the president.

The legalization of gambling has been a political hot potato for more than a decade, with many previous attempts to introduce it falling by the wayside, but this time lobby groups say the Council for Economic Planning and Development (CEPD) is already working on supporting measures for the bill, so all the signs are positive.

The man pushing for the arrival of casinos — and who introduced the revision to the legislature — is Penghu’s Non Partisan Solidarity Union Legislator, Peter Lin (林炳坤).

“We don’t want to attract hardcore gamblers, but to develop casino resorts that will bring families,” Lin said, adding that a maximum of three licenses would be issued because Penghu didn’t want to become another Macau.

“The difference between here and somewhere like Macau is that people go to Macau just to gamble. With Penghu, people will be able to come for a few days’ holiday and gamble while they are here,” he said.

Tourism chiefs, meanwhile, are looking to casinos to boost the number of holidaymakers, which last year reached 500,000.

“Many Taiwanese don’t come to Penghu because it’s easier to visit places like Kenting, as you can drive there and avoid the cost of a flight,” Penghu County Government Tourism Bureau Director Hung Tung-lin (洪棟霖) said.

Hung believes casinos will help convince people to go that extra mile.

While it is no secret that Taiwanese like to gamble — industry statistics regularly quote figures showing between 15 percent and 20 percent of the takings in certain casinos in Macau and Las Vegas come from Taiwanese gamblers — will Taiwanese be willing to gamble in their own backyard?

One man eager to take that wager is Ashley Hines, president of casino operator Amazing Holdings in Taiwan.

Hines’ company owns an 11-hectare site overlooking a picturesque bay in Fengkuei Village (風櫃) and has already devoted US$7 million to preparing a suitable site.

The company’s plot of land was consolidated from 300 title holders, no mean feat in Taiwan. It took eight years, the removal of around 80 graves and involved one of the developers’ wives having to become a peanut farmer.

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