During the recent elections for village chiefs and township representatives, Penghu County also held an unofficial referendum intended to gauge the level of support for the licensing of casinos there. The people who voted in the referendum did so according to individual and local needs, urgently hoping that once the government has heard the voice of the people, it would respond by providing practical assistance in the form of capital and infrastructure.
However, if the people of the outlying islands wish to set up a gaming industry, the government first has to consider how it would go about this.
First, can the government afford to build expensive UFA gaming facilities on the islands — given its financial problems? The many social problems casinos can bring, such as gangster activity, proliferation of the sex industry, difficulty in controlling gambling habits and the influx of outsiders must also be addressed.
Whether the government can come up with an effective policy to tackle these problems — or even whether there will be the money or personnel — are controversial issues that must be resolved before a gaming industry can be established. Research has indicated that some of these problems may be impossible to eliminate and that the only recourse is to mitigate them. But how to mitigate them is a problem in itself.
In allocating resources, the first priority should be transportation. Temporarily putting aside the issue of whether large-scale airplanes can land at Makung’s airport, Penghu lacks an international access point. Without any direct air links, foreign visitors must first go to Chiang Kai-shek International Airport, then go to the Sungshan airport and take a flight to Penghu. This is a complete turn-off for foreign tourists, and Penghu would not be able to compete with regional competitors such as Macau, Phuket and Bali, which already have direct international air links.
Another problem is that Penghu’s water supplies are already insufficient to support its residents, let alone a massive influx of visitors on any sort of regular basis. The cost of fixing this problem has not even been assessed.
Building hotels is another headache. Since the bridge connecting the Paisha and Hsuyu islands was completed in 1971, scores of international tourist hotel groups have studied Peng-hu’s business prospects. They have been put off by the weather, which is so unpleasant in winter that hotels do not open.
If international tourism cannot be developed on Penghu, clearly the establishment of a gaming industry will face even more challenges. If Penghu’s development must depend solely on a domestic tourist base, it will have an even more serious effect on Taiwanese society. It is not certain tourists would even want Penghu turned into a gambling resort. From surveys conducted in Macau, we can see that only about 10 percent of the people who travel to Macau are solely interested in gambling, while the majority go there for sightseeing.
The question of whether building casinos in Penghu conforms to the needs of international and domestic tourists is a key consideration. The government needs to work out how to package international tourism marketing strategies so that Penghu doesn’t fall prey to regional competition in the global tourism industry.
Establishing a gaming industry is a desperate remedy. While I believe that no one would oppose using tourism to develop Penghu, wouldn’t it be better for the government to administer a more suitable remedy to solve its long-term development predicament?
Ni Chin-cheng is an associate professor in the department of social studies education at National Hsin-Chu Teachers College.