Divisive Thailand Casino Study Derailed by Politics

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A 60-member committee formed to explore the potential legalization of casinos in Thailand is seeking an extension of 120 days beyond its original deadline to finalize its findings. The topic is proving to be more challenging and divisive than initially presumed.

More Questions than Answers

The committee, tasked last October with assessing the feasibility of opening up the casino industry, had initially been given until the end of the month to complete its report. However, disagreements among members persist regarding key issues such as how Thai players would be regulated and whether the private sector or government would take the lead role in casino operations.

There are also concerns that Thailand may be considering this move too late. Some feel that the rise of online gambling could potentially diminish the revenue-generating potential of traditional casino tourism.

Despite these challenges, figures within the tourism industry are largely supportive of the idea of legalizing casinos. This is particularly true if they are integrated into larger entertainment complexes aimed at promoting economic development and offering a diverse range of services beyond gambling.

Dr. Nualnoi Treerat, director of the Centre for Gambling Studies at Chulalongkorn University, has made his opinion known in comments to Channel News Asia. He suggests that an integrated resort model with gambling confined to designated areas within allocated complexes could be a preferred option for the Thai government to consider.

Adith Chairattananon, the honorary secretary-general of the Association of Thai Travel Agents, echoes this sentiment, expressing support for the government's aim to develop world-class facilities akin to those in Singapore or Macau. However, he emphasizes the importance of prioritizing entertainment complexes in areas requiring economic revitalization rather than focusing solely on tourist hotspots like Phuket and Pattaya.

Support from the Highest Levels

The committee, chaired by Julapun Amornvivat, Thailand's Deputy Minister of Finance, enjoys support from members of parliament across party lines. Legalizing the casino industry could potentially position Thailand as a competitor to its regional neighbors in terms of gambling-related tourism revenue. In Southeast Asia, apart from Thailand, only Indonesia and Brunei currently have bans on gambling.

Major international casino operators, including Las Vegas Sands and MGM Resorts, have expressed interest in obtaining licenses to operate in Thailand if gambling is legalized. That backing will weigh heavy on the government's decision, as it could mean immediate financial gains.

The move to legalize gambling follows other recent measures aimed at boosting tourism and revenue. These measures include extending operating hours for nightclubs and bars in tourist areas, easing visa requirements for key international markets and promoting the cannabis industry.

Proponents of casino legalization argue that it could generate billions of dollars in tax revenue annually. The establishment of entertainment complexes in each of the country's main regions, including the north, south, east, northeast and central areas, would be particularly advantageous. Additionally, other forms of gambling, such as online betting and sports wagering, could also be considered under the proposed regulations.