Penghu facing uncertain future over casino plan

For years, Tsai Ching-yun, a 53-year-old man who runs an electronic appliances store in Magong City, Penghu’s capital, eked out a living selling TVs and DVD players to the small population on the archipelago southwest of mainland Taiwan.

Like many young people, his two daughters have moved to mainland Taiwan due to the scarcity of jobs. Efforts by the local government to boost tourism in recent years have only been moderately successful due to the islands‘ strong winds, cold winters and relatively remote location.

Many residents such as Tsai had long hoped for something that would breathe life into the laid-back, economically depressed county on the Taiwan Strait. But now that Taiwan’s legislature has passed a long-stalled bill to allow the gaming industry to be developed on outlying islands such as Penghu and Kinmen, Tsai and other residents say they are not sure casinos will be the answer.

„Even after casinos are built here, it will not help create business for small shops, because most of the casino visitors will spend their time and money inside the facilities,“ said Tsai.

Although passage of the bill by the Legislative Yuan on Jan. 12 is considered an „elixir of life“ by some Penghu natives, many other local residents worry about possible negative impacts — such as increased crime, environmental damage and social problems — once Pandora’s Box is opened.

They also fear Penghu’s uniquely simple way of life — which many treasure — will be threatened.

Passage of the bill opens the way for casinos to be built on Penghu, a county of about 90 islets whose government had for 16 years pushed for legalization of gambling.

British gaming company AMZ Holdings has already purchased a large piece of beachfront land to build casinos and Penghu County is hoping to attract TWD 30 billion (USD 909 million) in private investment to develop casino resorts.

The bill mandates that casinos must be developed as part of tourism facilities, such as hotels, recreational resorts or shopping malls.

If local residents approve gambling in a referendum slated to be held in the middle of this year, casinos could rise up from Penghu’s placid white-sand beaches and coral-rock studded coasts as early as two years from now.

The Cabinet-level Council for Economic Planning and Development has estimated that casinos could help lure about 5 million visitors, including 500,000 foreigners, to Penghu a year, and generate annual revenue of some TWD 50 billion (USD 1.5 billion) and help create at least 10,000 jobs.

Currently, around 400,000 tourists visit Penghu annually, mainly in the summer.

To persuade residents to approve its plan to develop casinos, the Penghu county government has promised to provide TWD 20,000 in subsidies each year to every elderly citizen aged over 65 and every toddler.

Opinions among residents, however, are divided on whether the government’s promises of more jobs, tourists, and tax revenues will prove to be true, and whether casinos will bring more good, rather than harm, to the islets.

Sylvia Lyu, who operates a small inn in a quiet Penghu village, said it could be the beginning of a nightmare. She and her husband, an avid windsurfer, moved from Kaohsiung to Penghu five years ago for its beaches and peaceful environs, but she now fears Penghu’s way of life, which enables people to leave homes and cars unlocked, could be ruined.

„I am really concerned that there would be more petty crime, like thefts, in our neighborhood, “ said Lyu. „Gangsters, violence or the sex business might come later.“ Penghu has the lowest crime rate across the country.

The number of permanent residents totals around 60,000, although about 94,000 people have their households registered on the offshore county.

Many residents are skeptical about whether the county government will succeed in winning foreign investment and whether Penghu can attract enough gamblers or tourists.

Chen Kuang-fu, general manager of Penghu First Liquor Corp., said the county might have missed the prime time to open casinos, as neighboring countries and territories, such as Singapore and Macau, are way ahead of Taiwan.

Macau Casino King Stanley Ho and the Venetian group from the United States, had inspected Penghu for casino development possibilities over 20 years ago, but decided against Penghu due to the gambling ban at the time and the inadequate infrastructure, Chen noted.

To compete with neighboring countries, Penghu will need to build casinos on a massive scale, and will need major expansions and upgrades of its infrastructure, including its small airport, as well as water and waste treatment facilities.

Penghu also lacks the name recognition of say Macau or Singapore, and unlike those two places, it is not centrally located or easy to travel to, residents said.

„It just cannot compete with Macau — the nearest casino Mecca to Penghu,“ Lyu said.

Macau is just a short boat ride or flight from southern China and Hong Kong, attracting the key gambling customers in the region — Chinese citizens. Unlike Penghu, it is also warm almost year-round.

The timing for launching the Penghu casino project is also bad, said Chen Chi-lung, a successful businessman who owns hotels, restaurants and tourism agencies on Penghu.

„It would make me much happier if it had happened a few years earlier, “ said Chen, whose Dolphin Bay Resort is the first five-star tourism hotel on Penghu.

„Look around here and tell me who in their right mind would invest in Penghu at such a bad time? “ Chen asked, referring to the current global economic downturn.

Residents with reservations about the casino project urged government authorities to take into account all these problems and minimize the negative impact of casinos on the islands.

Supporters, however, said they are optimistic that casinos will create a brisk business environment and more opportunities for Penghu residents.

„We are hopeful that casinos could help create employment and improve the economy for local residents, despite fears about a declining social order,“ said Lu Heng-shu, a native from Penghu and manager of Wish Paradise, a jewelry store.

Lu added that currently most shops on Penghu can only run their business in the first half of the year due to the notoriously strong and chilly winds in the winter, which makes Penghu unattractive to tourists then.

It is hoped that casinos will attract visitors to Penghu, even during cold periods of the year.

A main reason why residents support casinos is that the declining economy in Penghu has also led to a declining population there.

Elderly people grow old without their children nearby because their grown children live in mainland Taiwan where there are jobs.

Enrollment in schools is so low that some have shut down, forcing students to take boats to other islands daily to go to school.

„It is true that many people are not willing to see such businesses (casinos) established in their hometown, but they are also painfully anxious to see that this change could help inject a new lease on life for local people,“ said Chen Kuang-fu, who runs the first and only winery on Penghu.

The county government meanwhile is gearing up to hold 36 „explanation sessions“ in Penghu about the referendum.

Referendums in Taiwan are according to law supposed to have a turnout rate of at least 50 percent of the eligible voters in order to be valid. The legislature’s casino bill, however, makes that unnecessary for referendums on gambling.

Activists, including Buddhists, have held protests outside the legislature and organized a national anti-gambling parade on March 22.

Some people predict the referendum will pass, largely because Penghu residents see no alternative and because of the government’s promise of subsidies.

While Tsai, the electronics store owner, said trying to boost tourism through gambling is wrong, and that casinos will not necessarily attract tourists, but mainly gamblers, he still plans to vote yes in the referendum — reflecting the dilemma residents face.

„I will do so in my slightest hope that more newcomers would be attracted to Penghu,“ he said.