Let’s Get Real About Casinos by Bart Walters

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Yes, yes … another titillating headline about casinos in Thailand. It seems that the day after October 13th, property pundits were dragging out the “C” word. It’s sexy, it’s exciting and it is great “click bait” for social media. But I’ve yet to see anyone show a shred of proof Thailand is actually moving in that direction. Look, I like to hyperventilate the hyperbole with the best of them, but I’m here to offer a sober look at the possibility of casinos in Thailand.

First a quick history. About ten to twelve years ago casinos in Thailand was an issue that appeared to be on the table and everyone agreed that in or around Pattaya was an ideal location for a handful of reasons. Then the royal family expressed a negative opinion on the topic and that was the end of that. Now some folks think it is a good time to revisit the subject.

Supporters of the casino movement say it will boost tourism, bring in foreign investment and let the air out of the illegal gambling business. Thai tourism officials are quick to point out that any gaming operations should be aimed at attracting the oh-so-elusive “quality tourist”. I suppose that means we should expect Marina Bay Sands and not “Uncle Jaroon’s Poker Pit”.

If I had to make a list of all the people I know that think casino gambling in Thailand is a good idea, none of them could offer what I would call an objective opinion; present company included. I own property in Pattaya, so I’d love to see casinos there. Most others who are pro-gambling are similar in that they somehow have a dog in the fight. To be sure many Thai politicians and businessmen supporting the movement are similarly self-interested.

But what do the majority of Thai people think? This isn’t the kind of issue that will get solved with some kind of government decree. The current Prime Minister has stated clearly that legalized gambling will not happen under his administration. Old guard royalists maintain their position that legalized gambling is bad for Thailand.

I posed the question to the most objective Thai people I could find. In case you didn’t know, when I’m not grinding out interesting articles for magazines like this one, I teach Technical and Academic Writing at a university in Bangkok. During two classes full of Freshman I split them into opposing sides and had them develop persuasive arguments both for and against legal casinos in Thailand.

The pro-casino kids argued that a lot of money was flowing out of Thailand to casinos across the border in countries like Cambodia; money that we could retain in Thailand.

They also cited thousands of new jobs and an increase in foreign money that could be flowing into the Kingdom from rich visitors. “People are gambling everyday already” said one student. “If it were legal, nobody would go to jail and the government could tax it”. And finally they pointed out that certain tourism hubs had suffered from global economic turmoil and casinos could breathe new life into them. Valid arguments all of them. I was impressed by their critical thinking skills.

The anti-casino groups were creative in their approach. First they said that aiming at “quality tourists” would mean the everyday gambler would not be allowed to enter a casino and the illegal games would continue as usual. They went on to say that the amount of money, jobs and increased tourism was unquantified and would amount to very little in the long run. One student pointed out, “All those mega-casinos like in Singapore are foreign owned. Doesn’t a lot of the money just flow back out?”

Interesting point.

The real meaty arguments from the anti-casino group were the disadvantages of legal gambling. They pointed out that casinos always come with an undesirable side-effect of organized crime, drugs, human trafficking, loan-sharking, etc. “Gambling is addictive like yaba” said one young lady. “Do we really want to encourage that?”

By far the most amazing argument I heard from these young people was that gambling is morally repugnant. Yes, they actually used that word!

One young man said that he could not support a government that preyed upon the addictions and bad habits of its citizens just to collect taxes. I was stunned at how serious these 18 year old kids were about the moral and ethical issues surrounding gambling.

But, my all-star response came from a private student who graduated last year. “Thailand doesn’t need gambling” she said matter-of-factly. “If we’re serious about bringing in more wealthy tourists there are much better ways”. Her plan was to emulate super tourist destinations like Disney World. “We could attract big theme park operators from the US, Europe and Asia by offering tax incentives” she went on.

She also pointed out that we have great airports and plenty of hotel space. “We should be more of a convention and business destination” she said. “And why shouldn’t we be making a bid to host the Olympics in Bangkok?” According to this sharp-as-a-tack 22 year old, “Casinos only benefit the people involved in them. What I’m talking about would benefit the whole country”.

My star student … a refreshingly “big” thinker.

In the end, only two out of 38 students said they would support legalized casino gambling in Thailand. Why is this little exercise important? Well, where I come from, young people are the most likely to welcome change and liberalization of laws … any laws. Not this bunch. And, these kids are literally the future of Thailand. They are already voting age.

If and when this issue comes up, I expect them to join with the old royal guard and just about every other Thai person I meet and vote it down.

So, the next time you get sucked in by some sexy headline about casinos in Thailand, make sure you have a firm grip on reality. Thailand is still ruled by Thai people and as of right now, they are very chilly on the idea of legalized gambling.

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