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Casino

Thailand considers a gamble on Singapore-style casinos, online betting to boost state coffers. Will it pay off?

Wednesday 14 de February 2024 / 12:00

2 minutos de lectura

(Bangkok).- The Thai government could raise significant tax revenue from allowing a legal gambling industry to grow but must consider the social impacts and better control existing illegal activities, experts say.

Thailand considers a gamble on Singapore-style casinos, online betting to boost state coffers. Will it pay off?

As Thai decision-makers mull a move to legalise gambling in the country by opening its own casinos at Singapore-style integrated resorts and allowing online betting sites too, experts have warned of the need to install carefully considered guardrails on any future gaming industry.

These measures may include adopting something similar to Singapore’s model where restrictions are placed on local players via measures such as entry levies and exclusionary orders to bar their visits to casinos at integrated resorts, and keeping online gambling outlawed for now.

But there are deeper concerns that without tackling illegal gambling that continues to thrive in Thailand’s border towns and on the internet, legal casinos would simply provide additional opportunities for people to bet.

An ad-hoc 60-member committee to study legalising gambling and casinos at what it describes as entertainment complexes was established by the Thai parliament late last year.

The committee has support from members of parliament both in government and opposition. The chair is Mr Julapun Amornvivat, Thailand's Deputy Minister of Finance.

The legalisation of the industry could place Thailand in direct competition with some of its regional neighbours for gambling-related tourism revenue. In Southeast Asia, apart from Thailand, the only countries that ban gambling are Indonesia and Brunei.

Big overseas industry players are expected to be lining up to win licences to operate casinos in Thailand. Las Vegas Sands, which owns Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands, as well as MGM Resorts are companies that have expressed potential interest in doing so.

Legalising gambling would follow other recent measures the Thai government has launched to draw visitors and raise revenue, including allowing later opening hours for nightclubs and bars in tourist areas, relaxing visa requirements for key international markets, dropping sales tax levies on alcohol and permitting the cannabis industry to proliferate. 

Government revenue raising has been framed as a leading reason to allow casinos to operate. A report by a previous committee on the issue in the last parliament found that billions of dollars could be raised in taxes annually, under a proposal to open entertainment complexes in each of the country’s five main regions: north, south, east, northeast and central.

Several other types of gambling could also be permitted, including online, sports, stock exchange index and foreign exchange rate betting.

However, the complex nature of this legislation means it could take years to be enacted.

FROM TABLE TO ONLINE

Opening on-site casinos with clear regulations could be an initial move that comes ahead of deregulating other types of gambling, especially through gaming websites. 

“People on the committee are thinking of the big picture. They know the public might reject this so that’s why they’re talking about entertainment complexes like in Singapore,” said Dr Nualnoi Treerat, director of the Centre for Gambling Studies at Chulalongkorn University.

Dr Nualnoi is providing expertise to the parliamentary committee on the benefits and risks of opening up the gambling industry.

Public sentiment remains split about the prospect of allowing entertainment complexes with gambling to open, according to a poll performed by the previous parliamentary committee on the issue.

It found that while more than 80 per cent of respondents were open to the resorts themselves, only 36 per cent agreed that they should include casinos. 

She believes even greater public opposition - based on annual surveys her centre carries out - to the idea of allowing online gambling could delay legislative changes linked to it.

Special interest groups are pressuring the government to allow online gambling to become legal though, according to Dr Nualnoi, given the astonishing growth of the industry. “That’s why there is a conflict. There’s still a dilemma about this,” she said.

The global online gambling market was valued at US$63.53 billion in 2022 and is expected to expand exponentially in coming years.

“If you want to legalise it, what you have to do is at least count the costs and make the regulations. And you also have to have a centre to look after those who are addicted,” she said. “Many people feel that online is just really, really dangerous. For them, for their kids, and their family, because it's close to them. And they can play anytime.

Singapore does not allow online gambling, and blocks advertising and websites that offer such activities.

Mr Thanakorn said Thailand only needs to look at neighbouring countries to understand the adverse impacts that can arise from allowing betting websites to flourish on the internet, which he labelled “very dangerous gambling”.

China has expressed its unhappiness with Cambodia and the Philippines legal online gambling multiple times and are pressuring them to issue policies to control it.

“This is the last thing (the Thai government) should consider making legal,” he said.

But the trends and size of the industry could make it hard to resist for long, admits Mr Karit. A lot of countries are starting to have this law and limitations around it. I still cannot imagine how we will control this well. We are talking about it,” he said. “I am worried about this a lot because everything has now moved from table to online. The world of gambling is all in the mobile phone.” 

MONEY LOST ACROSS THE BORDER

The current sources of online gambling Thailand are illegal and have long been connected to various criminal activities, such as money laundering, drug and human trafficking.

Extensive scamming operations working in close proximity to gambling dens in border areas have been well documented.

Thai police officers have also been connected to such illicit activities. Last September, several officers were found to be involved in running illegal online gambling sites, which led to raids at multiple locations, including houses belonging to Thailand’s deputy national police chief Surachate "Big Joke" Hakparn.

At present, it is estimated that vast sums of Thai money are leaking out of the country via illegal gambling, offshore and online.

Legalising on-site casinos has been framed as one solution to diverting money away from such activity, into the coffers of the government instead.

Mr Karit Pannaim, a Move Forward Party MP and member of the parliamentary committee studying the legalisation proposal said he believes legal casinos could make a dent in the illegal activities occurring in border gambling dens, including in the province he represents, Tak, on the border with Myanmar. “If we have an entertainment complex, we will reduce the money that flows along the borders,” he said.

But identifying the scale of illegal gambling in Thailand is very difficult, according to Dr Nualnoi. She said the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a sharp rise in online gambling within the country, when gamblers were unable to cross the border.

Her centre’s research found that the number of online gamblers in Thailand doubled to 1.9 million people in 2021 during the worst of the lockdown periods. Gross gaming revenue in the country was estimated at US$2.8 billion for that year.

“A lot of them play inside the country now. And the ones who are providing this online gambling are all Thai,” she told CNA. “If you have legal casinos, it doesn't mean illegal casinos will disappear. It’s another story,” said. “When you have legal casinos, you need to supplant the illegal ones, otherwise they’re just other places for people to gamble in the country.”

Mr Thanakorn Komkris, the secretary-general of Stop Gambling Foundation, said without a proper crackdown on such illegal operations, Thailand cannot hope to have a sustainable gambling industry. “If we don’t want the people to spend money outside the country, the government should put pressure in every way possible to stop people from accessing this (illegal gambling). Legal gambling doesn’t decrease illegal gambling,” he said.

The government announced last year that it had shut down thousands of gaming sites and dealt with thousands of illegal gambling cases. 

Mr Thanakorn said he is still worried that the government will rush legislation that does not ensure the industry is properly controlled and managed. “I’m also afraid that it will be done in a way that it’s an excuse to do a ‘sandbox’ or they legalise it first and do the control measures after, like the decriminalisation of cannabis,” he said.

The legalisation of cannabis in Thailand in 2022 - namely allowing its possession, cultivation, distribution, consumption, and sale - came hard and fast. 

Throughout the country, especially in popular tourist cities, marijuana dispensaries surfaced at a rapid pace and the industry had enjoyed freewheeling liberties to expand. This month, the government said it would urgently introduce a bill to ban recreational use of the drug.

“We have a lot of lessons about doing it first and fixing it later. We can’t do this because we will not be able to catch up with problems or stop it later,” Mr Thanakorn said.

Categoría:Casino

Tags: Sin tags

País: Thailand

Región: Asia

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