Betting on the future
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Betting on the future

The government is banking on legalising casinos to generate revenue, but there are familiar concerns about the social impact

Gambling chips worth about 50 million baht are seized following a raid on a casino in Nonthaburi on March 19, in which 300 gamblers were arrested. Photo courtesy of Provincial Administration Department
Gambling chips worth about 50 million baht are seized following a raid on a casino in Nonthaburi on March 19, in which 300 gamblers were arrested. Photo courtesy of Provincial Administration Department

Casino legalisation resurfaced as a political issue last month after the House of Representatives supported a study by a panel of lawmakers to allow casinos as part of large entertainment complexes, eager to gain estimated revenue of 440 billion baht per year.

Opposition parties came out strongly against legalisation, put forward by the Pheu Thai-led government, noting that legalisation wouldn't eliminate illegal gambling and the tax revenue could be insignificant based on studies in other countries.

While many tourism operators applauded the House study, opponents argue that attempts to cash in on foreign visitors could have adverse effects, as tourists who do not gamble may shift to other destinations instead.

Weighing the benefits and drawbacks of legalising casinos remains crucial as a bill is drafted because weak law enforcement could have negative consequences, as happened with previous bills such as the liberalisation of cannabis.


Nonarit Bisonyabut, senior economic researcher at the Thailand Development Research Institute, said if the government wants to develop an integrated entertainment complex with casinos, it should avoid areas that are already major tourist destinations.

Development should be slotted to secondary cities or remote locations away from prosperous areas, following the model of Las Vegas in the US, which is situated in a desert.

This method prevents adverse effects on the original economic base of the region, said Mr Nonarit.

For instance, he said in Macau the original economic activities were agriculture and industry, and these sectors were severely affected by the more economically valuable casino industry, with important resources diverted.

Furthermore, the number of casinos should be limited so they are not in every region of the country, said Mr Nonarit.

Nationwide casinos could be dangerous as gambling addictions are prevalent among Thais, potentially increasing the likelihood of social problems, he said.

Mr Nonarit said screening individuals to enter gambling venues is crucial to mitigate social issues.

The focus should be on attracting more foreign tourists rather than Thai nationals. However, affluent locals should be allowed to play in casinos, he said.

Even among the affluent, there should be limits on the amount they can gamble, said Mr Nonarit. This means wealthier people can gamble more than those with less resources, he said.

Mr Nonarit said there is less stigma attached to casino legalisation now than in the past because social attitudes and the economic environment have changed with increased competition.

People have discarded traditional beliefs, embracing same-sex marriage rights and a policy to liberalise alcohol production, reflecting changing social attitudes, he said.

Mr Nonarit said the appropriate strategy to build these complexes is to provide entertainment and happiness to people, rather than encouraging gambling for wealth. Misinterpreting this concept could lead to social problems, he said.


Tourism operators in Pattaya back casino legalisation through the development of an entertainment complex at U-tapao airport city, which could stimulate income if there are strict regulations to prohibit unruly gamblers and grey businesses.

Damrongkiat Pinijkarn, secretary of the Pattaya Entertainment Association, said establishing a casino complex would stimulate tourism as Thailand is already a top tourism destination for foreigners.

However, if U-tapao is developed as an entertainment-casino complex, Mr Damrongkiat said some operators in Pattaya are worried it may keep tourists within the airport city because of its many offerings, including a casino, water park, hotels and malls.

This could mean fewer foreigners visiting Pattaya, he said.

To prevent this bubble effect, the government should create transport options between the entertainment complex and other tourism destinations in the Eastern Economic Corridor, as well as promote a combined tourism package within the entire cluster, said Mr Damrongkiat.

"In some cases, one family member may prefer gambling in the casino, while the rest could visit the beach in Pattaya or attractions in other parts of Chon Buri," he said.

Mr Damrongkiat said the first phase of such a complex should restrict entry to foreign tourists and set a minimum tax rate for gamblers, in order to compete with other destinations such as Singapore and Macau.

After securing a certain level of the market, the government should hike the tax rate and allow local gamblers to enter the casino, he said.

The authorities must strictly limit entry to customers with high income by collecting an entry fee, checking their age, occupation and tax status, and requiring a minimum bank deposit, said Mr Damrongkiat.

Students or locals with insufficient income should be prohibited from entering the casino to prevent social problems, he said.

Mr Damrongkiat said it is unavoidable developing an entertainment-casino complex is likely to benefit some interest groups or large companies because of regulations limiting operations to a legal entity with more than 10 billion baht in registered capital.

Development of the complex could cost more than 100 billion baht, he said.

The government needs to realise the potential impact and prevent grey businesses from investing in the project from the outset by inspecting the financial history of all investors, said Mr Damrongkiat. This would help prevent illegal activities, such as money laundering.

He said he is confident the government will push ahead with development of a complex this time, though such proposals were brushed off many times in the past.


Sanan Angubolkul, chairman of the Thai Chamber of Commerce, said the entertainment complex initiative is feasible, but the government needs to thoroughly study local norms, environmental factors and the living conditions of people, as well as hold public hearings to mitigate the potential negative impacts on society.

Legalisation of gambling has been discussed in the past, but no government has moved on the issue because of public opposition. The current government wants to meld entertainment complexes with casinos.

Such complexes would create jobs and bring more revenue to the country, argue the coalition government.

However, there are familiar objections based on the effects on youth, gambling addictions, domestic violence, debt and drug-related problems.

Both sides of the issue are calling for strict policies and legal limitations.

Mr Sanan said the initiative could stimulate the economy by bolstering employment and drawing investment.

He cited the success of entertainment complexes in Las Vegas and Macau, proving that casinos are only one part of such complexes, which include malls, restaurants, luxury hotels and venues for shows.

Strict regulations, security measures and clearly designated locations and criteria for access could limit the negative impacts on society, said Mr Sanan.

Thais travel abroad to visit entertainment complexes, especially in Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia and Malaysia. Though there is no clear data, fund outflows from these trips are estimated at billions of baht per year.


The Federation of Thai Industries (FTI) believes Thailand can benefit from entertainment-casino complexes with fewer concerns related to social impacts if there are laws to regulate gambling.

The country needs new powerful laws that limit any negative impacts, said Kriengkrai Thiennukul, chairman of the FTI.

Enforcing a toothless law will not help alleviate worries raised by opponents of these complexes, he said.

"If we don't know how to draft the law, we can adapt casino control laws from other countries," said Mr Kriengkrai.

"We can study them and adjust their content to suit our country."

He said he is researching casino legalisation. Thailand can initially offer legal status to gambling, which is considered part of the underground economy, then design a new law to better control it, said Mr Kriengkrai.

"I'm aware opponents of the project view gambling as immoral," he said.

"They don't want the government to promote it in our Buddhist country, but some neighbouring countries that allow casinos are also Buddhist nations."

If casinos are legalised in Thailand, the authorities will not only collect taxes from operators, but can also prevent gamblers' money from flowing out to casinos abroad, said Mr Kriengkrai.

"Many Thais who like to gamble spend a lot of money in neighbouring countries," he said.

Mr Kriengkrai urged opponents of legalisation to be more open-minded and consider the economic benefits of the project.

Casinos can be a new magnet to draw more foreign tourists to Thailand, in addition to the country's well-known natural and cultural attractions, he said.

Entertainment complexes can also help improve the economy in lesser-visited provinces, generating jobs and increasing income for locals, said Mr Kriengkrai.

Slot machines at an illegal casino in Nonthaburi. Photo courtesy of Immigration Bureau

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