Thursday, February 18, 2010

Vegas in the Taiwan Strait?

Casino developers hope to turn this remote Taiwanese island chain into Asia's next gambling hot spot.

Global Post, September 13, 2009

PENGHU, Taiwan— Taiwanese have long summed up this isolated archipelago as "nothing but sand and wind."

But if developers have their way, it could soon boast a third, more lucrative attribute: casinos.

On Sept. 26, the 94,000 residents here are expected to go to the polls in a special referendum, asking them if they support or oppose a plan to open this remote island chain to gambling interests.

The plan has touched off a classic debate: should Penghu prioritize economic development, or quality of life? The proposal's backers say casinos will kick-start Penghu's sluggish economy and create jobs. But opponents fear casinos would turn these laid-back islands into a prostitution- and crime-ridden den of iniquity.

"Casinos will have a very bad influence," said Shih Chao-hwei, a Buddhist activist who previously took part in a successful anti-horse-racing drive. "Gambling isn't good for a peaceful mind, and has a bad effect on families."

Penghu County includes some 90 Taiwan-controlled, low-lying islands and rocky outcrops sprinkled across the Taiwan Strait, just east of China.

In the summer, it's a slow-paced haven for domestic tourists. It sports some of Taiwan's best beaches and is ideal for windsurfers and the booming numbers of young, novice Taiwanese surfers (see the county government's promo video).

But in winter, punishing winds of up to 70 miles per hour turn Penghu into a howling, barren outpost, unsuitable for tourism.

"Business-people support the plan, because six months out of the year we can't make any money," said Tina Chang, 36, who runs a knick-knack shop in a restored old street in Makung, Penghu's main city. "But fishermen and some other locals oppose it."

Casino developers, including some from the U.S., have big dreams for these islands. They hope to turn Penghu into a cash cow catering to high-rollers from Taiwan and especially, China. Where now there are only flat, grassy fields and ramshackle houses, they envision huge, neon-washed hotel and casino entertainment complexes.

Boosters say the timing is perfect. Under a new China-friendly president, Taiwan has opened its doors to Chinese tourists and investment. Meanwhile, China's nouveau riche — including free-spending government officials — have a gambling itch, money to burn and a fascination with their "renegade province."

But others say casinos will bring unwanted vices to this sleepy corner of Taiwan. They cite the example of Macau, whose famous brothels now attract a brisk sex tourist trade, and where fierce gun-battles raged in the 1990s between gangs fighting over a cut of the casino business. "For the sake of our next generation, please vote 'no' in the casino referendum," blared a pre-recorded voice, through speakers mounted on a van winding down a lonely beach-side road on a recent Saturday.

Others worry that developers' search for profits could permanently mar the archipelago's charm.

"Penghu is so peaceful," said Karen Hou, who helps run her father's bed and breakfast on the placid east side of Penghu's main island. "If you lose your purse or wallet here, people will return it to you. If the casinos come, it won't be like that anymore."

Despite those concerns, many here are betting on a "yes" vote to the casino plan. Citing a non-binding poll that passed a few years ago, they expect the referendum to pass. If it does, this sleepy archipelago is in for some big — and glitzy — change.

Original site

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