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Crazy money dreams: Taiwan may get its first casino to lure Chinese gamblers
Quiet but ambitious, Matsu may not have an international airport, but it does have hope of becoming Taiwan's first gambling destination
The residents of Matsu, an offshore archipelago of Taiwan, voted to build a casino on their turf to boost development and lure Chinese gamblers away from Macau.
The vote took place on July 7, with 1,795 votes for the casino plans and 1,341 against.
The turnout rate was 40 percent of eligible voters, according to Taiwan news reports.
Matsu has a population of about 10,000 and its economy has relied on its strategic positioning as a first line of defense against troops from the Chinese mainland.
The archipelago once held as many as 50,000 soldiers, but today, with improved ties between Taiwan and China, the numbers are down to about 3,000.
Asian gaming giant Macau is seen as a model of success for Matsu. Macau has surpassed Las Vegas in gaming revenue since 2006 to become the reigning world gambling capital.
Matsu on the other hand has an underdeveloped infrastructure and dwindling income from military personnel.
Residents are hoping a casino cash cow will secure their future.
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But the islands face fundamental problems in realizing their casino dream.
Since amendments in 2009 to Taiwan's Offshore Islands Development Act, casinos are permitted to be built on islands, pending positive results from local referendums.
Yet, gambling remains illegal in Taiwan.
Union Gaming group principal Grant Govertsen told investors that legalized gaming is at least five years away.
“The voter referendum now sets off a chain of legislative events that will likely need to come to fruition.”
The government is yet to pass laws on gambling regulations and laws on building integrated resorts.
Govertsen estimates that construction of any casino resort in Taiwan would not be able to begin sooner than 2014.
There's also the question of whether Beijing will allow tourists to visit the casino. Currently, visitors from mainland China can only sightsee in Taiwan with a visa.
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Build it and the cash will come
Developers are optimistic.
Taiwanese tourists contribute as much as NT$900 million (US$30 million) a year to Macau.
"That money would stay in Taiwan if it had its own casino," said Weidner Resorts Taiwan chief executive Bill Weidner.
The developer is ready to invest NT$60 billion (US$2 billion) for a 100-hectare "Mediterranean Sea resort in Asia" on Matsu's Beigan Island.
In order to make it happen, the company would first need to complete an overhaul of Matsu's infrastructure.
This would include expanding Matsu's transport network, as well as the water and power supply, constructing an international airport, a university and a roads between Beigan and Nangan all within three years.
Opponents of the casino project are worried that turning Matsu into a gaming center will disrupt its quiet way of life and introduce social and criminal problems to their small population.
Anti-casino groups campaigned against the referendum in the week leading up to the poll.
According to the Taipei Times, Control Yuan President Wang Chien-shien said: “Matsu is a place where its beauty lies in its simplicity. If the referendum passes, it could become a land of sin."