Excuse the metaphor, but it’s always been a gamble to guess when Taiwan will start up its first casino. Voters in one county said no thanks in 2009 after a developer had bought land for a gaming resort. An American casino operator keenest to develop in another county has gone quiet after voters said OK to gambling. And Taiwan’s legislature still hasn’t passed the core enabling legislation that would allow casinos anywhere.
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But people in government expect movement this year, allowing Taiwan to open its first casino in 2019 to start vying with Singapore, the Philippines and even Macau for Asia business worth something like $45-$50 billion per year. The world’s big-name casino operators are already interested as Taiwan sits just across a narrow strait from China, Asia’s top source of gamblers.
As early as this month, parliament could cut off months of debate and give final approval to the Casino Management Act. Approval would allow offshore islands under Taipei’s authority to accept bids for resort-casino projects as outlined in the act’s text. The rugged, distant archipelago of Matsu would qualify right away because last year its people voted in favor of operating casinos, which would boost infrastructure and add jobs. With the act in hand, Matsu local officials would know how many casinos are allowed – probably just one or two – and how to evaluate bids. Bids plus construction of casinos and attendant infrastructure would equal five years.
“Given that the act could be successfully passed in the beginning of year 2014, we optimistically expect that the earliest time the casino could open to public in Matsu is around 2019,” says Lin Kuo-shian, director-general of the transportation ministry department in in charge of gaming. Matsu’s tourism head Liu Te-chuan is eyeing the same timeframe. A number of household-name casino operators have quietly expressed interest but would need several years following permits to get the land and build out infrastructure, possibly including one of the small archipelago’s two civilian airports, he explains.
One suitor – Weidner Resorts – has fallen quiet after pledging during the vote-yes campaign in 2012 to build a bridge and a new airport. The company run by Sands Corp. ex-president William Weidner has said little about his once ballyhooed plans for 100-room resort casino in Matsu since a Philippine casino ended its contract in September with his firm Global Gaming Asset Management Group. Other big names are at the table in Matsu, just in the shadows for now. “Weidner has the will, but there are other companies that are waiting for the act to go through parliament,” Liu says. “We don’t know how many will come forward.”
In another chain of Taipei-administered offshore islands, Penghu (aka the Pescadores), the pro-casino camp is gearing up for another voter referendum after a surprise loss in 2009. If it passed on the back of the legislative bill, the 64-islet Taiwan Strait archipelago could start gambling relatively soon. Claremont Partners Ltd., based in Isle of Man, owns 27 acres of land there and would just need to renew permits to start building an integrated resort-casino, said the company’s Asia point person Carl Burger. A subsidiary of the same operator aims to open a resort-casino in the Catskill Mountains of New York state.
“Penghu is the only island where no major company apart from Claremont has staked claim,” Burger says. “We continue to conclude that Penghu very much remains a viable location. We anticipate that the supporting Taiwan legislation will finally pass in 2014 and set the stage for gaming operators and investors to enter a new Asian jurisdiction.”
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