TAIPEI — The world’s casino giants found a potential new venue on Saturday as voters on a tiny group of offshore islands near Taiwan approved gambling for the first time. The rural, rugged Matsu islands, with a population of just 10,000, will join Macau, Singapore and the Philippines as a place for casino gambling - in a region where betting is huge even without casinos.
Casino operators from London to Las Vegas have been sniffing out Taiwan for three years as a place to set up resorts aimed at the massive greater China market. Taiwan’s central government green-lighted gaming on six outlying islands or archipelagos in 2009 as a way to stoke tourism, but subject to local approval. In a referendum on Saturday, voters approved gambling by a wide margin, 57 percent to 43 percent.
John Bruce, operations director at the Hong Kong risk management consultancy Hill & Associates, says the vote will change Matsu's landscape. The tiny islands now largely depend on fishing, military bases and a trickle of tourism.
“Taiwan’s been talking about having casinos for 10, 15 years. They look around the rest of Asia. They see the phenomenal success of Macau. They see Singapore very quickly making great money and then you have these other areas. You have Cambodia. You have Laos, you have Vietnam moving closer; you have Korea making consideration of more casinos. Locals see it as a great revenue generator,” says Bruce.
Matsu’s decision directs government agencies to decide how many casino permits to issue and how big the venues should be. Officials did not divulge specific plans before the vote but are expected to issue just one or two permits.
A leading candidate is a resort developer led by former Sands Corporation president William Weidner. Gaming analysts in Taipei say Weidner plans to build a medium-sized resort-casino on the less populated of Matsu’s two main islands, and a suite of public infrastructure projects costing up to $2 billion.
Analysts say Matsu’s potential for casino gambling is huge because underground sports betting is already rampant on the main island of Taiwan, which is less than one hour away by air. China, which has fed Macau’s gaming industry, is visible from Matsu, and tourists from the closest Chinese province already ferry over regularly for sightseeing.
Casinos are expected to open service jobs in Matsu, which is less developed than other offshore islets under Taiwan. Companies from Taiwan and China would follow any casino boom by building up hotels and ferry services, creating more jobs.
Anti-casino advocacy groups campaigned over the past week to urge defeat of the referendum by arguing that casinos would ruin the islands by introducing a criminal element to the pastoral islets.
A similar referendum failed three years ago on a larger group of islets near Taiwan. Those islands, known as Penghu or the Pescadores, are considered more attractive to casinos than Matsu because of their better infrastructure, including an international-class airport.
But voters felt uneasy about the threat of crime despite the lure of jobs. Penghu is allowed to try again as early as September, and the Matsu vote may inspire a new effort.