Thai PM Proposes Legalizing Casinos at Tourist Spots
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Thai PM Proposes Legalizing Casinos at Tourist Spots

By GRANT PECK / AP WRITER / BANGKOK Wednesday, March 5, 2008


Thailand's new prime minister vowed on Tuesday to open casinos in five tourist centers if he completes his four-year term, seeking a share of the billions of dollars that otherwise flows to illegal gambling dens and neighboring countries.

Samak Sundaravej, who took office last month, mentioned in his weekly radio broadcast on Sunday that he supported the concept of legalized gambling as in Macau and Malaysia, which both host thriving casino industries.

"At the beginning, [we] should start with tourist areas like Pattaya, Phuket, Khon Kaen, Chiang Mai and Hat Yai," he told reporters in Bangkok.

Thais are allowed to bet on a lottery and at two horse racetracks in Bangkok, but otherwise gambling is illegal. Yet it is widespread and tolerated: Serious high-rollers play at illegal underground casinos or cross the border to gamble at larger enterprises in Cambodia and Burma.

"We have to seriously study the idea of how to open legal casinos," Samak said. "This way, the illegal dens and private casinos will close down. If people want to gamble they can come here, so the police won't have to crack down on (the illegal dens)."

Advocates of legalization claim the huge amount of money now going to illegal or offshore casinos should be flowing into government coffers and legitimate Thai companies.

A recent report by financial consultants PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP projected that gambling revenue in the Asia-Pacific region would grow to US$30.3 billion in 2011 from $14.6 billion in 2006, making it the world's second largest casino market after the United States.

Thai proponents also say legalization of casinos would help the country retain its competitive edge in the regional tourist trade.

Macau is Asia's main casino center, rivaling Las Vegas in revenues. But Thailand's southern neighbor Malaysia also hosts major professional casinos and Singapore is building two casino resorts, one to open next year and the other by 2010.

Thailand last seriously considered legalizing casinos in 2003, under then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 military coup. He met with the representatives of at least one major international casino operator, the MGM Mirage group from the United States, but the negotiations never got off the ground.

Although legalization of casinos has been proposed on and off for decades—Samak was promoting the idea in the 70s—there has been strong opposition on moral grounds: Gambling is associated with unsavory elements of society and concerns have been voiced that it could further impoverish lower-income families.

Samak and other proponents suggest high entrance fees and other measures would ensure that Thais who cannot afford to gamble would be kept out.

"I personally agree with the idea since our neighboring countries also have casinos," Justice Minister Sompong Amornwiwat said Tuesday. "But in Thailand, we are still attached to traditional values that it is inappropriate since we are a Buddhist society."

In 2000, Samak similarly promoted opening legal casinos to generate more state revenue.

"Thailand does not accept the truth," Samak was quoted as saying at the time. "They say Thailand has no prostitutes but there are lots of brothels. Thailand has no casinos but gambling is rife."

"As for casinos, I think it's time we made their existence official," he said.

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