South Korea

Asian casinos solve conservative beliefs by allowing foreigners only

Conservative countries limit their citizens' access to casinos to minimise the negative impact of betting while raising revenue

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 January, 2013, 5:30am


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The casino industry is booming across Asia, offering anyone looking for high-stakes action a wide choice of venues, from high-tech South Korea to the Himalayan nation of Nepal and communist Vietnam.

Anyone, that is, except South Koreans, Nepalese or Vietnamese.

For conservative Asian countries, the financial pros and social cons of casino gambling pose something of a dilemma - one that several have chosen to resolve by adopting a foreigner-only access policy.

The upsides are obvious in a region where rapid development has nurtured a taste and capacity for high-end leisure activities.

Casinos provide a consistent source of hard currency revenue, fuel tourism, especially from sought-after high rollers from mainland China, and boost the local economy.

But the social impact of gambling is equally well documented, in terms of addiction and broken families, as well as criminal activities like loan-sharking.

So a number of Asian countries have tried to have their cake and eat it, by building glitzy casinos but barring, or strictly limiting, entry to their own citizens.

Kim Jin-Gon, director of tourism in South Korea's Culture Ministry, cited a widely held belief that Koreans are particularly susceptible to gambling addiction.

"Our feeling is that Korea does not have a mature culture that could enjoy gambling simply as a leisure activity," Kim said. "We block Koreans from casinos because the fallout would be too big."

South Korea's ban is not total. Of the country's 17 licensed casinos, one - Kangwon Land Resort - is open to locals.

Its remote location in a mountainous area, several hundred kilometres and a three-hour express bus ride from Seoul, was supposed to deter salarymen from nightly excursions during the working week.

But special "bullet taxis" offer a high-speed, white-knuckle service that promises to get punters there in half the time.

Nepal and Vietnam operate 100 per cent foreigner-only casino policies, although in the case of Nepal it's a regulation often observed in the breach.

Vietnam's first casino opened in 1992 and there are now seven, with two more in the pipeline.

For Vietnamese nationals, all gambling apart from a state-run lottery is banned.

While Vietnamese gamblers have no access to a place like Kangwon Land, they can simply cross into Cambodia, where huge casinos have been built near the border that cater almost exclusively to Vietnamese tourists.

Cambodians, needless to say, are not legally allowed to gamble in their own casinos, though presumably they would be welcomed at those in Vietnam.

Perhaps aware of the contradictions thrown up by foreigner-only policies, Singapore has opted for a compromise.

A Sg$100 (HK$628) entry fee is aimed at filtering out low-income gamblers, while any Singaporean who had filed for bankruptcy or received long-term financial state aid is automatically barred.

After a 2011 official survey showed an increasing proportion of low-income gamblers playing with large sums, the ban was expanded in June last year to include the unemployed and those on short-term welfare.

Casinos that fail to comply face a maximum fine that used to be capped at Sg$1 million (HK$6.27 million) but can now reach as high as 10 percent of annual gross gaming revenue.

Commercially, Singapore's two casino resorts have been an undeniable success, with a combined gaming revenue of around US$6 billion (HK$46.5 billion) in 2011.

That level of return has fuelled debate in countries like Japan about lifting its ban on casinos, which forces Japanese gamblers to travel to South Korea, Macau and Singapore to play the tables.

Taiwanese, meanwhile, may soon have a domestic option after the people of outlying Matsu island voted last year to open Taiwan's first legal casino. The casino would be open to everyone except, perhaps inevitably, the Matsu islanders themselves.