With the imminent possibility of gambling becoming legal in Taiwan, the Penghu County Government is preparing the island to be ready for a casino complex to be built. On May 8, Penghu County Commissioner Wang Chien-fa announced that the county government’s plans to introduce casinos and develop the island’s tourism industry remained unchanged. He said the government has already begun work on a land integration project that will include having several plots of public land available for the construction of casinos and hotels on the main island.

“Two to three big plots of land will be ready in anticipation of an influx of investment conglomerates for the development of casinos and the related tourism industry,” announced Wang in a statement reported by the Taipei Times.

Wang revealed to the Penghu councilors that he had met several times with president-elect Ma Ying-jeou and discussed the county government’s intentions for improving the tourist industry on the chain of islands off the coast of mainland Taiwan. He said that Ma has promised that the central government would spare no effort to facilitate the development once Penghu residents can reach a consensus on the casino issue. There are still several groups on the islands that are dead set against the idea of legalized gambling and are afraid of what issues may arise from allowing casinos on the islands.

Wang stated that he has expectations of 2 to 3 million tourists visiting the islands annually once the casino complexes and hotels are in operation. As seen in other Asian markets, this influx of tourists can boost the local economy in several ways. Several thousand jobs could eventually be created between casinos and hotel staffing needs as well as peripheral businesses that will grow naturally due to the large number of visitors. Areas surrounding casino complexes also benefit through restaurants, retail establishments and other types of businesses.

At the end of April, Ma Ying-jeou had vowed to earmark and amount equal to $3.3 billion U.S. dollars to help local governments in the south with their financial problems. He also promised additional funds to work on attracting tourists as well as developing local industry. Ma stated that 1.61 million tourists visit Taiwan every year while 8.67 million Taiwanese citizens leave the country as tourists. He pledged that the central government would be allocating money and making laws to reduce this gap in numbers by strengthening the tourism industry. Many Taiwanese people think that casinos would solve most of these issues.

One recent development that will help the idea of casinos to progress is that proposals to allow direct cross-strait charter flights connecting Taiwan to the Chinese mainland. Although current proposals put a limit of 3,000 Chinese tourists per day, this would go a long way to improving the tourist industry in Taiwan. There are eight airports that have been designated to accommodate the flights and one of them is located on Penghu Island. Flights are expected to begin in July but the exact date has not been announced.

Penghu already attracts about half a million tourists per year so the tourism industry is already established on the island but has been on the decline for years. The idea of building casinos there to help boost the economy has been discussed for a long time. In 2003, 57% of the voters in Penghu backed the idea in referendum. Unfortunately, it is difficult to accurately project the percentage of the population that is actually for casino development because it was a record low turnout with only 21% of those eligible to vote bothering to turn up.

The Penghu County Government continues to urge the central government to make good on the promises given by Ma during his pre-election pledges. Wang said that developing the island as a comprehensive shipping and tourism hub in the Asia-Pacific region will transform the Penghu’s fishing industry. He believes that casinos will bring increased commercial opportunities even beyond tourism for local residents and that the island’s harbors have the potential to become international quality ports.  Wang cited Penghu’s extremely low crime rates as a major factor in attracting investors to “such a safe environment”.

The county government is not the only one gearing up for casino development on the island. An American gambling executive, Larry Woolf, and his company Amazing Holdings has spent the past three years in buying up adjoining land parcels on Penghu Island. Woolf has revealed that he has already invested in excess of $50 million U.S dollars on the first phase of his hotel project on Penghu. Once casinos become legalized, he plans to also incorporate a casino complex at the beachfront property.

With Ma Ying-jeou clearly supportive of casino development and pledging to legalize casinos once elected, it seems a foregone conclusion that Taiwan will soon have casinos somewhere. While it remains to be seen for sure if any licenses will be allowed on Penghu, the island is particularly well-suited for casino development. It already has an existing airport that can handle larger numbers of tourists with only minimal upgrades required. It’s proximity to mainland China is another factor that makes development on Penghu a likely choice.