Playing with Thailand’s future

A recent photo shows the Kings Romans Casino on the Mekong on the Thai-Lao border.

Whether you support it or not, betting and gambling dens have long been commonplace across much of Thailand, despite attempts by authorities to stamp them out.

Thais love to play cards and bet on sports, especially football and cockfighting, although gambling is currently illegal here.

Casinos in the border town of Poipet, Cambodia are often staffed by Thai nationals and are always packed with Thai guests.

The Thai government has toyed with the idea of ​​making gambling legal in the country for two decades. However, the plan has repeatedly been thwarted by arguments that gambling is inconsistent with the principles of Buddhism and that doing so would lead to even more illegal behavior.

While Thailand’s neighbors – Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Malaysia and Singapore – have legalized gambling and developed casino complexes to accommodate tourists and boost their economy, Thailand holds fast to its Gambling Act (1935), which bans all forms of cash betting. except for the state lottery and horse racing at state-licensed racecourses.

Proposals to legalize casinos were debated in Parliament in late June to revive the pandemic-hit economy, after the government successfully decriminalized cannabis that same month. Legalizing casinos would aim to increase revenue, collect taxes from the complexes and crack down on illegal venues, slot machines and online gambling.

According to the House of Representatives committee studying the feasibility of opening such entertainment complexes, Thailand could host five casinos — one in each of its five regions.

To the north, the location of the casino could be Chiang Rai or Chiang Mai. In the central region, Pattaya is the target area.

In the south, Phuket, Phangnga or Krabi were considered ideal spots. In the north-east you can choose from Ubon Ratchathani, Udon Thani or Khon Kaen. The best location is either Bangkok or one of the adjacent provinces.

The House of Representatives committee said the proposal, if passed, could help Thailand generate billions of dollars from foreign investors, travelers and Thai gamers. The committee believes that this target market would otherwise spend its gambling money in neighboring countries, while Thai legalization would also help curb illegal gambling and other criminal activities.

A casino in Poipet in Cambodia, adjacent to the Sa Kaeo province of Thailand.

TOO LATE

But Aat Pisanwanich, director of the Center for International Trade Studies at the University of Thailand’s Chamber of Commerce, says casino liberalization in Thailand is unlikely to be a worthwhile investment as the move is seen as too late.

“Thailand has been relatively slow to move on this issue,” Mr Aat said. “Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Malaysia and Singapore have long been investing in casinos, while Chinese investors are already gaining a foothold in our neighboring countries.”

Mr. Aat also questioned whether Thailand had commissioned a Swot (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analysis on the subject, as Thailand as a newcomer is unlikely to take full advantage of the casinos.

According to Mr. Aat, the goal of boosting tourism and attracting tourist revenue is unlikely to be achieved as tourists from Europe and the US usually visit Thailand for recreational purposes and not for gambling.

“Chinese capital has long been spent in full-fledged casinos in our neighboring countries, be it in Laos in the Golden Triangle or in Cambodia in Koh Kong and Sihanoukville. It comes with networks ready to lure Chinese into their casinos, while Marina Bay Sands and The Genting Group are the casino investors in Singapore and Malaysia respectively,” Mr Aat said.

“Who will invest in Thailand if we legalize casinos now? When Thai investors are ready to invest, the next question is whether Thai investors can compete with Chinese investors who are fully equipped not only with capital but also with networks.”

According to Mr. Aat, Chinese tourists visit Thailand because they love Thainess, not gambling.

He said Thailand should instead focus on developing and strengthening tourism and tourism destinations to accommodate people traveling to gamble at casinos in neighboring countries.

The Thai Chamber of Commerce declined to comment on the issue of casino legalization.

Tourists look at a menu at a restaurant near the New Mei Gao Mei (New MGM) casino in Sihanoukville, Cambodia. (Photo: Bloomberg)

THINK BEFORE IMPLEMENT

Phisut Sae-Khu, president of the eastern chapter of the Thai Hotel Association, said that if the government wants to legalize casinos, it should carefully consider the pros and cons of the policy and come up with well-planned regulations and laws to avoid negative impacts in the beginning.

He said that since Pattaya was named as one of the potential destinations for legal casinos, tourism operators believed that this kind of business could increase their revenues.

But even without casinos, Pattaya already has many other tourism products to offer as it has been a global tourist destination for many years. Tourism in Pattaya would not be affected if casino legalization did not happen.

“We have no objection when the government says there is a need to stimulate the economy, but before introducing this policy, the local community should be sure that the businesses are under control and would not cause social problems, as is the case with the Legalization of cannabis is the case,” he told Mr Phisut.

CASINO SANDBOX

The Federation of Thai Industries (FTI) suggested that the government should resolve years of controversy over legalizing casinos by conducting a test before making a decision.

Kriengkrai Thiennukul, chairman of the FTI, while seeing the potential of casinos to attract more tourists and generate economic benefits, said he was also aware of concerns about possible negative impacts.

Opponents of legal casinos include former Deputy Prime Minister MR Pridiyathorn Devakula, who said opening casinos could lead to social problems, including rising personal debt and higher crime rates, according to media reports referencing his comments in 2015.

While Thailand debated the issue for years, neighboring countries went ahead with legalization and reaping the benefits of casinos.

“Even Malaysia, where most of the people are Muslims, allows casinos to operate,” Mr Kriengkrai said.

“Religion and casinos are considered separately in other countries. Casinos are treated as a business.”

But he said it would be a good start if the government first opened a sandbox casino in a tourist destination like Pattaya, Phuket or Samui.

Instead of pushing big projects like entertainment complexes as part of casinos, a sandbox would let the government see what impact it would have.

Public hearings also need to be held to gauge people’s opinions, Mr Kriengkrai said.

He would support the legalization of casinos to regulate gambling, reduce corruption and create a new source of tax revenue.

“This is one way to increase government revenue, but the government needs to enforce strict laws to prevent underage people from entering casinos,” Mr Kriengkrai said.

He said that if the relevant laws were in place, casinos would help generate revenue to boost Thailand’s economy.

That would be better than seeing how Thais spend money at overseas casinos, Mr Kriengkrai said.

A casino in Poi Pet in Cambodia, across from Sa Kaeo in Thailand. (Photo: Patipat Janthong)

TRANSPARENCY REQUIRED

Sangsit Piriyarangsan, chairman of the Senate committee tasked with tackling poverty and inequality, said if the government decides to legalize casinos, it must ensure they are run on a transparent basis and by professionals to prevent the Venues being used for money laundering.

He believes that Thai society is now mature enough to embrace the casino business, but it needs to come up with clear rules to prevent social repercussions.

Casinos should waive entry fees for foreign customers but charge Thais, Mr Sangsit said.

Venues would also need to check the financial status of Thai customers before letting them in to prevent those in an economically precarious state from playing, he added.

He added that legal casinos in many countries are only part of holiday resorts to persuade foreign visitors to stay longer.

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