More casinos licensed; should they be off-limits to locals?

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Vietnamese cannot enter casinos at home, and some critics of the ban are calling for lifting it together with better regulation

 
An artist's impression of MGM Grand Ho Tram, a casino-style resort in Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province. The resort is scheduled to open next February. Photo: HTS

With several large and small casinos being licensed and more awaiting approval, the question has again cropped up: should Vietnamese be allowed into casinos?

Since gambling is considered a "social ill" and legalizing it is seen as opening a Pandora's box, the country's casinos are now open only to foreigners and overseas Vietnamese. But it is an open secret that punters go in droves across the border into Cambodia and to other countries to part with their money.

In 2008 the government approved a Las Vegas-style integrated resort, the US$4.2 billion Ho Tram Strip, a group of integrated resorts on Ho Tram beach, some 127 kilometers from Ho Chi Minh City.

Being developed by Canada's Asian Coast Development Ltd (ACDL), the project's first casino-resort, the MGM Grand Ho Tram, is scheduled to open next February.

Since 2008 five other casino-resorts have been licensed across the country: two in Quang Ninh and one each in Hai Phong, Lao Cai, and Da Nang.

More foreign casino investors have evinced interest in entering Vietnam.

The one thing in common between Ho Tram and the five other casino-resorts is that no Vietnamese citizens will be allowed entry.

A spokesperson for Ho Tram said the casino targets foreigners living in Vietnam and overseas Vietnamese.

"We also target more than six million tourists coming to Vietnam annually," he said.

For better or for worse

Since Vietnamese are not allowed to gamble at home, they go to other countries where they can. Cambodia, Singapore, Malaysia, and the Philippines are the favorite destinations.

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Tran Huu Huynh, a lawyer and chief of the Vietnam Chamber of Commerce and Industry's Legal Department, said Vietnamese authorities should consider if the gambling ban is really working.

"No surveys have been done to confirm that no Vietnamese citizens get into local casinos, and no studies have been made to find out how many Vietnamese go abroad to gamble.

"Why are there a lot of casinos in border areas? Obviously to attract Vietnamese gamblers."

Vietnam should move toward allowing its people into casinos, but with strict conditions and, more importantly, avoid licensing too many casinos, experts said.

Pham Trung Luong, deputy director of the Institute for Tourism Development Research, concurred, pointing to the potential financial windfall from tourism revenues.

"It is the responsibility of authorities to control the flow of "˜dirty money' into casinos and the bad social impacts of gambling.

"They [authorities] cannot just ban what they cannot control.

"Vietnamese people must have their rights; if they have legal income, why ban them from gambling?"

Lloyd C. Nathan, ACDL's CEO and director, told Vietweek that only the government can decide whether or not to allow Vietnamese citizens into casinos.

But he did point to the thousands of Vietnamese who flock to Cambodia every day to try their luck and the media reports of the unfortunate things that happen to them there.

Faced with these facts, he said, many countries have chosen to legalize and control gambling, ensuring at the same time that there is entertainment on offer that protects people through fair games and measures against addiction.

Singapore, for instance, bans several categories of poor people from using casinos. For a while now 28,000 bankrupts and people benefiting from a government assistance scheme have been on the banned list. From August 1 a further 15,000 people who are receiving unemployment benefits or live in public housing and are behind on their subsidized rent by six months or more will be banned.

Besides, Singaporean citizens must first pay a S$100 (US$78) entry fee that is not levied on tourists.

Nathan said casinos also help attract foreign tourists to a country, claiming that two resorts opened in Singapore in early 2010 contributed to a 20-percent increase in tourist arrivals that year.

Official backs idea

A Ministry of Finance official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Vietweek that he completely agrees that Vietnamese citizens should be allowed to enter casinos.

Some countries with a lot of similarities to Vietnam, like Singapore and Malaysia, have legalized gambling, he said.

"But transparent mechanisms and proper policies are needed," he warned.

Authorities must make sure gambling does not affect security and social order, he said.

Saying that casinos, if well managed, would bring substantial revenues from taxes and services, the official said his ministry is willing to advise the government in drafting related laws.

Some conditions could be imposed for gambling, such as income, he said.

"A Vietnamese gambler must prove he has a high income, for instance, of more than VND9 million a month.

"He will then be issued a card, which will be scanned when he enters a casino.

"However, he must maintain his income or the card will be revoked."

He said some rules can be set to fit Southeast Asian culture: for example, a gambler should not be allowed to enter a casino if his/her parents, spouse, or children send a letter of protest to the casino.

He said authorities should calculate the number of foreigners regularly living in Vietnam and the number of high-income Vietnamese to see the real demand for gambling.

"High-income people in any country will spend; if we ban them from gambling they will surely move to where they can gamble."

Bui Sy Loi, deputy chief of the National Assembly's Social Affairs Committee, said the government should initially allow Vietnamese to enter casinos in areas with highest demand for gambling, but only after vetting gamblers' backgrounds to address possible social problems.

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