FEATURE: Penghu awaits casinos with mixed feelings

By Richard Hazeldine  /  STAFF REPORTER

Sun, Dec 07, 2008 - Page 3

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.

Penghu’s position midway between Taiwan and China has many operators salivating at the prospect of being able to tap the Chinese tourist market — especially given the success of Macau.

There are “350 million Chinese living within 1.5 hours flying time from Penghu,” Hines said, but for now his company is only concentrating on Taiwanese, a wise strategy considering the restrictions recently placed on Chinese visits to Macau by Beijing.

Chinese tourists, if they are allowed to come, would be an added bonus, he said.

But not everyone is enamored at the prospect of gambling coming to Penghu, despite the fact that several referendums have shown a majority of residents favor the casino plans.

Religious groups and residents have expressed concerns that the arrival of casinos could disrupt the traditional close-knit communities of the islands and bring crime and prostitution, while environmentalists worry that masses of tourists could damage the islands’ unspoiled beauty.

For Lee Ken-cheng (李根政) of Mercy on the Earth, Taiwan, one of the biggest concerns is the impact an increase in tourists would have on Penghu’s scarce water resources, as the islands already have to ship water from Taiwan proper during dry spells.

Chimei Island (七美) has only been open to tourism in the last 20 years or so, Lee said, but already it is having major problems with salinization of its fresh water supply. An increase in tourists will only exacerbate this problem, he said.

More hungry tourists would also be devastating for the islands’ fisheries, which have already seen catches drop by half or more in the last 20 years, he added.

Local residents are also divided on the issue.

Hsueh Ming-feng (薛明峰), a 40-year-old pharmacist, said: “The referendums were not performed correctly. Only those who expressed an interest in the issue were allowed to vote.”

“The biggest concern is the environment and the pollution an increase in visitors will bring,” he said. “And there are worries about prostitution.”

“Most normal people are not in favor of the plans, only those who stand to benefit by selling land support it,” he said.

“The extra visitors that casinos bring will only spend their money in the resorts, not outside,” he said.

Shop owner Wu Yuan-li (吳源利), 71, disagreed.

“I’ve been to casinos in [South] Korea and other places and have seen what benefits they can bring,” he said. “Foreign tourists will come and the hotels and shops will have better business.”

“When you rely on the sea for a living there is no business in winter,” he said. “All the young people here usually go away to Kaohsiung, Taichung and Taipei, but if we open casinos, then hopefully some of them will come back.”