Vietnam Allows New Casino

A decision by the government of Vietnam to bring a casino to the island of Phu Quoc—and even allow Vietnamese patrons under certain circumstances—has generated mixed reaction among the citizenry. Any investor would have to pony up $4 billion, minimum, to develop there.

Attempt to spur tourism, economy

Vietnam’s decision to permit a mega casino development on its biggest island has garnered mixed reaction from the country’s citizens. Among the issues is a proposal from the Finance Ministry to allow citizens of the country to enter and play for the first time (Vietnam currently has six casinos, all of which are reserved for foreigners only).

Advocates of the more relaxed rule say it would help keep money inside the country that Vietnamese gamblers now spend abroad.

“There are many Vietnamese who gamble at casinos in Singapore and Cambodia, and it’s obvious that we’ve lost some state revenue here,” said Phan Thi Thu Hien, deputy head of the banking and finance department, as the legislation was drafted last year. “We’ve studied what regional countries have done and think we should do the same. These changes would help increase government income.”

According to ABC News, the draft decree being considered by authorities would allow Vietnamese to patronize the casino if they are over 21, “financially secure,” and have no criminal record. The plan also calls for a minimum $4 billion investment by the casino developer.

Tran Thi Viet Huong of tour operator Viettravel told ABC the planned casino on Phu Quoc in Kien Giang province “will attract more tourists and infrastructure investment and create more jobs, which will bring more development opportunities.”

But economist Pham Chi Lan is skeptical about the plan. “The money we may earn from the Vietnamese who spend at casinos in Vietnam instead of the ones in Singapore or Cambodia may not be enough to compensate for the economic and social consequences brought about if gambling is widespread and legalized in Vietnam,” she said. The plan would also be difficult to enforce, she added.

There is a darker side to the story. Of the thousands of Vietnamese who cross the border each month to gamble in Cambodia, “some indebted gamblers have been held hostage or even killed,” according to the Thanh Nien Daily.

“The victims’ families were often too scared to report honestly, if they decided to report to police at all,” said Vu Hoang Kien of the Ministry of Public Security. Vietnamese police say there are 54 casinos along the Cambodian side of the border, which attracted some 234,000 people last year.

According to VietnamNetBridge, investors interested in the area could include the Southern Gold Coast JSC of Phu Quoc; Environmental Energy Solutions Technology Inc. of the Philippines; and a joint venture between Sea Star Travel JSC and Asia Strategic Consulting & Advisory Service Ltd. A Singapore company is also said to be interested in Phu Quoc.

Other details are sketchy. Dinh Khoa Toan, chairman of Phu Quoc district, told Tuoi Tre that the location of the project has not been decided, and that the province will identify a site if and when an investor comes forth.

Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung has given the nod to the recreational complex on the resort island, a special administrative economic zone and resort on the Gulf of Thailand. Phu Quoc covers more than 589 square kilometers (more than 145,000 acres) and has a population of some 96,940, reported the Saigon Times Daily. Authorities see the island as a potential center of tourism and recreation, with supporting industries including finance, sciences and technology, and the marine and forestry industries.

According to the Kien Giang Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism, 600,000 people visited Phu Quoc last year, up 37 percent over 2013. In the next 10 years, Phu Quoc hopes to attract 2 million to 3 million tourists annually.

Hanoi-based journalist Thuy Linh warns that more casinos, and especially casinos that are open to locals, will encourage the Vietnamese to gamble more, especially in a distressed economy.

“When the economy is ailing, people are more eager to gamble to find luck,” she told Radio Free Asia. “But when people are poor and have no job, we see more bankruptcy due to gambling.”

But tourism expert Bui Long Quan suggests that many wealthy Vietnamese already play at home, and readily enter the country’s casinos by paying off guards. “Casinos for foreigners mean nothing,” he said. “So the ban is impossible.”