Fri, Oct 14, 2016 - Page 3 News List

Taiwan divided as offshore casino referendum looms

AFP, TAIPEI

As Penghu County prepares to vote on whether to allow casinos, the prospect of new mega-resorts is dividing communities and politicians.

While gambling is illegal in most of Taiwan, apart from state-

approved lotteries, outlying islands are permitted to develop casinos with a number of caveats, including that local residents agree.

That ruling was made in 2009, lifting the previous blanket gambling ban that covered all of Taiwan.

Since then the process of going ahead with casino development has stalled due to local objections and a government divided over legal gambling.

However, with the economy stagnating, advocates say now is the time to finally give the green light.

Others argue the costs still outweigh the benefits, fearing the arrival of gambling resorts would ruin some of the nation’s most stunning natural highlights.

On Penghu, which has a population of 100,000, and is known for its pristine beaches and turtle sanctuaries, residents are to vote tomorrow on whether to allow a casino to be developed.

It is the second time they have voted, after rejecting the idea seven years ago.

Supporters say it would bring extra jobs for young people and overhaul infrastructure.

They want to see Macau and Singapore-style “integrated resorts,” offering restaurants, malls, theme parks and shows, as well as gaming.

“Without casinos, no foreign investor will come to Penghu,” said Chuang Kuang-hui (莊光輝), which initiated the new referendum.

Local businesswoman Felicia Chen is also backing the “yes” camp, which says that casinos would help the economy during the low season from November to April.

“Where there are crowds, there is money to boost tax revenues, which can be used for social welfare for local people,” she said.

However, opponents say rubbish and wastewater generated from a huge increase in tourist numbers would pollute the air and sea.

They also question whether there will be real economic benefits, with gaming revenues in Asia shrinking, particularly in Macau, due to China’s crackdown on corruption and slowing economic growth.

“Given the regional gaming downturns, it could even be a drag on the local economy,” said Penghu-born Sheng I-che (冼義哲), chairman of the pro-environment Trees Party.

Even if there is a “yes” vote tomorrow, the path to building a casino is unlikely to be smooth.

Matsu opted to approve a casino in a referendum in 2012, but it has never been built as legislative approval is still pending.

Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) politicians, who are against gambling, have opposed a legislative act dealing with gaming licensing and regulations that would enable the casino to proceed.

Even some members of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), which was in power when the original blanket ban was lifted, have reservations.

However, observers say in the face of continued economic problems, residents expect the government to adhere to their wishes if they vote “yes.”

“If Penghu passes the referendum, it can join hands with Matsu to negotiate with the central government and demand voters’ wishes be respected,” National Taiwan University of Science and Technology gaming industry expert Liu Day-yang (劉代洋) said. “The DPP has to carefully reconsider its position to revive the economy.”

Investors have already shown interest in Penghu.

US real-estate developer Cordish Companies, behind the US’ Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casinos chain, submitted a proposal earlier this year for a resort, including a convention center, entertainment district and water park.

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