TAIPEI • As one of Taiwan's islands prepares to vote tomorrow on whether to allow casinos, the prospect of new mega resorts is dividing communities and politicians.
While gambling is illegal in most parts of Taiwan - apart from state-approved lotteries - outlying islands are permitted to develop casinos with a number of caveats, including the consent of local residents. That ruling was made in 2009, lifting the previous blanket ban on gambling that covered all of Taiwan's territories. Since then, the process of going ahead with casino development has stalled because of local objections and a government divided over legal gambling.
But with Taiwan's economy stagnating, advocates say now is the time to finally give the green light.
Others argue that the costs still outweigh the benefits, fearing that the arrival of gambling resorts will ruin some of Taiwan's most stunning natural highlights.
On the remote western archipelago of Penghu, which has a population of 100,000 and is popular with visitors for its pristine beaches and turtle sanctuaries, residents will vote tomorrow on whether to allow a casino to be developed. It is the second time they are voting, after rejecting the idea seven years ago.
Supporters say it will bring extra jobs for young people and overhaul infrastructure. They want to see Macau- and Singapore-style "integrated resorts", offering restaurants, malls, theme parks and shows, as well as gaming. "Without casinos, no foreign investor will come to Penghu," said Mr Chuang Kuang- hui of the Penghu Internationalisation Promotion Alliance, which initiated the new referendum.
Local businesswoman Felicia Chen is backing the "yes" camp, which argues that casinos will help the economy during the off-peak tourist season from November to April. But opponents say rubbish and wastewater generated from a huge increase in tourist numbers would pollute the air and sea. They also question whether there will be real economic benefits, with gaming revenues in Asia shrinking, particularly in Macau, because of China's anti-corruption crackdown and slowing economic growth.
Even if there is a "yes" vote tomorrow, the path to building a casino is unlikely to be smooth. The Matsu islands opted to approve a casino in a referendum in 2012, but it has not been built as parliamentary approval is still pending.
Politicians from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party have opposed a parliamentary Act dealing with gaming licensing and regulations that would enable the casino to proceed.