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News analysis

Opening Vietnam's casinos to locals a calculated gamble

Hanoi seen as betting on drawing foreign investment while setting conditions on local entry, like in Singapore

There was concern over the weekend after Vietnam announced a three-year trial allowing locals to enter the country's casinos.

Hanoi said a casino could admit Vietnamese if investors had committed at least US$2 billion (S$2.8 billion) to the integrated resort, out of which US$1 billion was already disbursed. At least two resorts being developed now could qualify.

Punters in the region play the casino equivalent of musical chairs, as their home countries allow gaming facilities to be built only for foreigners. The Phnom Penh Post has warned that gaming resorts in Bavet - the Cambodian town bordering Vietnam which relies largely on Vietnamese custom - were "poised to fold".

But a closer look at the decree suggests the communist government is playing it safer than thought. Hanoi has taken a leaf from Singapore's book, allowing only Vietnamese aged 21 and above, making at least 10 million dong (S$630) a month and with no criminal record to enter these casinos. Their families can prohibit them from visiting the casinos. Locals have to pay a daily casino entry fee of one million dong, or a monthly fee of 25 million dong.

In addition, the decree requires casino operators to issue Vietnamese punters with cards containing their photographs, identification numbers, date and time of entries and exits, betting amounts and winnings. Such information will need to be disclosed to the government upon request. More importantly, the two key developments in the running for such casino licences are not located on mainland Vietnam. Both are on islands - in Phu Quoc in the south and Van Don in the north.

Dr Nguyen Dinh Chuc, deputy director of the Institute of Regional Sustainable Development, tells The Straits Times that this is the government's way of "isolating the impact of the casino".

But there are potential rich pickings. Foreign casino corporations have long cited local access as one of the key factors in their decision to invest in Vietnam. And locals are keen gamblers. The legal lottery industry generated 64 trillion dong in revenue in 2014. That year, Vietnamese police dismantled 10 online gambling lines with transactions totalling 10 trillion dong, according to a report by the Institute of Regional Sustainable Development.

"Both legal and illegal gaming sectors in Vietnam are relatively large and growing rapidly," the 2015 report concluded.

Vietnam, although forecast by the World Bank to register inflation-adjusted growth of 6.3 per cent this year, is trying to rein in a fiscal deficit estimated at 6.5 per cent of gross domestic product in 2015, and outstanding public debt of about 62 per cent of GDP. With the setback presented by the United States' withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership this week, the signatory to the free trade agreement is casting the net wider for economic stimulus.

But several grey areas remain.

Casinos can admit Vietnamese if they meet the terms of the decree and are approved by "competent authorities" - a term which Professor Augustine Ha Ton Vinh, an academic who has advised the government on casinos, says "can be understood as the ruling (Communist) Party's Politburo".

That uncertainty will likely keep big international investors away, says Mr Shaun McCamley, a partner at Global Market Advisors, a gaming and hospitality consultancy. "Large companies want things to be black and white, clear and specific," he says. Vietnam has "turned the tap on, but it's only a trickle."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 26, 2017, with the headline 'Opening Vietnam's casinos to locals a calculated gamble'. Print Edition | Subscribe