Island off Taiwan bets on casino boom

Expectations are high on a small island off Taiwan that it could soon host casino resorts. By building casinos in Penghu County, Taiwan’s is seeking to create local jobs and discourage local residents from leaving to find work.

Also, the county wants to revitalize the island by attracting more tourists from China as its relations with Taiwan are becoming warmer.

However, this get-rich-quick dream might not come easy, as a project of this magnitude requires large improvements in accommodations for tourists, roads and other infrastructure. Also, some people doubt whether the planned casinos would be enough to attract tourists away from long-established gambling hot spots such as Macao.

„If casinos are introduced, we’ll have more job opportunities and won’t have to leave this island to look for work,“ said Chen Xiu-feng, a 51-year-old housewife living in a fishing village. „I’m all for it.“

The island, about 50 kilometers west of Taiwan, has a population of about 92,000. Many people go to Taiwan in search of jobs. About 13,000 people, more than 30 percent of the island’s working population is employed off the island. Among Taiwan municipalities, it has the highest ratio of residents who do not actually work in the town where they live.

The Penghu County government is hoping casinos can improve this situation. Though casinos are illegal in Taiwan, a bill to revise a related ordinance passed three months ago to promote remote islands’ development, allowing casinos on the islands. The county government, which wants to set up Taiwan’s first casinos, plans to conduct a referendum on building casinos in August.

Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou, as part of promoting closer ties with China, lifted a ban on Chinese tourists in July. China and Taiwan also have expanded private charter flights.

About 95,000 Chinese tourists visited Penghu Island last year. The county government for now envisions two casinos on the island to attract tourists from the rest of Taiwan, China and also from Japan and South Korea.

About 500,000 tourists visit the island mainly from other places in Taiwan, many to sample the island’s famed seafood. The county government is aiming for 5 million tourists each year. The county government expects casinos would boost tax revenue by about USD 6.6million and create 10,000 jobs.

According to Taiwan media, three leisure companies from Taiwan and Macao have announced interest in building casinos. „The island will be reborn as a casino resort in three or four years,“ said Hong Dong-lin, chief of the county government’s tourism bureau.

However, the island’s current accommodation capacity is only for 8,000 people. Also, tourists coming from Japan and South Korea have to transit via Taipei if they use passenger planes. It is essential to expand and upgrade hotels, airport and port facilities, but it is yet unclear how profitable the casino business will be or how such developments can be financed.

„Tourists who want to enjoy casinos can go to Macao,“ said Lin Chang-sing, 59, representative of a 100-member group opposing casino development on the island. „If casinos are set up, public morals will deteriorate. The authorities should work more on measures to promote tourism focusing on the island’s natural environment.“

However, many residents still seem very keen to have the casinos. „Many residents have huge expectations for the economic effect [of casinos], and only a small number of people oppose it,“ a reporter stationed on the island said.