Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung has approved a casino project for the country largest island, prompting mixed reactions from industry observers and economists, some of whom are calling on the government to legally allow Vietnamese to gamble in such venues to keep more revenue inside the developing country.
The casino will be located on Phu Quoc Island, a special administrative economic zone and resort in Kien Giang province in the Gulf of Thailand, and be part of a larger investment project consisting of a tourism and entertainment complex.
It will join a handful of casinos already operating in the country that only allow foreign passport holders to legally gamble in them.
Bui Long Quan, a Vietnamese tourism industry expert who says he has seen many groups of Vietnamese tourists in casinos abroad, believes that the project’s planner should take the Vietnamese people into account.
“The first benefit of this project is we don’t lose money—not letting the money out of the country, because if we let the Vietnamese go to casinos in Cambodia, Macau or Malaysia or other places, we let the money flow out.”
He said it would be impossible to stop Vietnamese from gambling in casinos in their own country.
“Casinos for foreigners mean nothing,” he said, adding that wealthy Vietnamese manage to gamble in the country’s casinos by paying off guards. “So the ban is impossible.”
In August 2013, the country’s Communist Party’s decision-making Politburo allowed Vietnamese who met certain criteria to legally gamble for a trial period in a venue in the Van Don economic zone in northern Vietnam’s Quang Ninh province bordering China, in a bid to lure international casino developers, according to Vietnam's Thanh Nien Daily.
Many of Vietnam’s casinos are located in the northern part of the country where they easily attract affluent Chinese gamblers, but they don’t allow in Vietnamese nationals, forcing them to go to neighboring countries.
But the government has created high entry barriers for foreign companies that wish to operate casinos by requiring them to construct large-scale integrated resorts containing shopping malls, restaurants, entertainment venues and luxury hotels, according to the Thanh Nien Daily. They also must invest at least U.S. $4 billion, and have 10 years of experience operating casinos.
Nevertheless, the decision prompted many other provinces to try to get casino licenses, especially because local leaders are evaluated according to short-term projects in their localities that increase local gross domestic product, according to reports.
Economists and politicians have considered what the opening of a casino in Phu Quoc would mean for tourism revenue for several years. Local official on the island have been looking for investors for a casino there since 2007, according to the Thanh Nien Daily.
“There are many opinions about this,” economist Le Dang Doanh told RFA’s Vietnamese Service. “There is the fact that without a casino it will be hard to develop tourism that has an association with gambling in Asia. [But] after considering the pros and cons of this project, we see that a casino in Phu Quoc can attract tourists and compete with other tourism places in the region.”
But because the Phu Quoc casino will be located on an island, project planners expect to avoid problems that operators experienced with the Do Son beach casino near Hai Phong in northern Vietnam where many Vietnamese paid U.S. $10 bribes to gamble illegally, Doanh said.
Some of those caught were imprisoned, he added.
Economist Bui Kien Thanh expressed concern about opening more casinos and allowing the Vietnamese to legally gamble in them.
He believes that the economic benefits of operating casinos, including job creation, may not outweigh their effects on society, and that there are many other projects more important than casinos.
Thuy Linh, a writer based in Hanoi, opposes the opening of more casinos and believes they will encourage the Vietnamese to spend more time on gambling, which is deeply ingrained in Vietnamese culture.
She said although casino projects could bring some economic benefits, it would not be good for gambling to flourish in the current economic environment.
“When the economy is ailing, people are more eager to gamble to find luck,” she told RFA. “But when people are poor and have no job, we see more bankruptcy due to gambling.”
The prime minister has given the Ministry of Planning and Investment and the Kien Giang province people’s committee oversight responsibility for the project and asked them to develop regulations to govern its operations to submit for his approval, according to a local news report.
Quan said he supports investment in casino projects, but is concerned about the state’s management of the venues.
“We need very strict management from the government, but if we had a poll right now, I think 80 percent to 90 percent of the people would have doubts about the government’s management,” he said.
Reported by Kinh Hoa for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.