Thailand would be a major draw for foreign investors were it to legalize its casino industry and would likely provide significant competition for other regional jurisdictions, according to panellists at the recent ASEAN Gaming Summit.
Although it’s almost impossible to put a size on the potential market, given the lack of parameters such as whether locals would be permitted to gamble, Thailand could feasibly become of similar size to Singapore, which currently generates about $4 billion in gross gaming revenue from two integrated resorts.
The Southeast Asian Kingdom has a population of about 68 million and a well established tourism industry, pulling in 32.6 million visitors last year, a gain of 9 percent. Total international tourism revenue was around 1.64 trillion baht ($46 billion), representing a year-on-year increase of 11.68 percent over 2015.
At present gambling in the country is only permitted through the Bangkok Turf Club and the state lottery, but the illegal market is thought to be huge. Thais are also frequent visitors to the many border casinos in neighboring Cambodia and Myanmar.
A 2011 study from the Chulalongkorn University’s Social Research Institute study estimated that 102 billion baht annually was spent on the underground lottery, 76.7 billion baht on the government lottery, with 46.3 billion baht spent on illegal casino betting and 38 billion baht on football betting. Some reports have said that up to half of the population may gamble illegally.
Various Thai governments have mulled the legalization of gambling, going so far as to commission studies as to the likely tax revenue and how to mitigate gambling addiction. Former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra favored casinos and had planned to hold a national referendum on the subject, though he was unseated in a 2006 coup.
His younger sister was elected to government in 2011, resurrecting hopes she would push forward with her brother’s casino plans, though she too was ousted in 2014 before making any progress. Powerful members of the new military government have indicated they are not averse to casinos.
Sungsidh Piriyarangsan, dean of Rangsit University’s College of Social Innovation, said in research last year that tax revenues of more than 100 billion baht (US$2.78 billion) could be achieved if casinos were legalized in Thailand.
“I do think there would be considerable appetite to enter Thailand. It would be perceived to be a much greater risk to Singapore than just about anywhere in the region because of the infrastructure it already has for tourists right now,” said Paul Bromberg, Spectrum Asia CEO “The Thai market would be a very, very attractive one to foreign operators.”
Las Vegas Sands in particular has expressed an interest in large-scale developments in the country.
Bromberg said he did believe Thailand would eventually move towards legalizing casinos, though the current political instability means it’s not a priority. The country has been ruled by a military government since a 2014 coup and its highly revered king, who was seen as a stabilizing force, passed away last year.
The majority of the Thai population is not opposed to gambling, though the issue is likely to be highly politicized, given powerful vested interests in certain parts of society. Some of these control large underground operations in the capital Bangkok, as well as many of the casinos that dot the border areas.
The seaside resort town of Pattaya was seen as an obvious location, given its proximity to Bangkok’s international airport, though the island Phuket is also likely to be a strong contender, Silver Heritage Group President of Business Development and Marketing, Tim Shepherd, said.
He said at the end of the day, an IR in either place is unlikely to have a major impact on the border casinos, as betting patterns show locals are still mostly likely to frequent the properties nearest to them.
Although there are no casinos in Thailand, there are well-established properties clustered around its borders, which attract significant traffic from local residents. Off the southwest border, there is the Andaman Resort and Casino, which is on the Myanmar island of Thahtay Kyun, while on the northern border with Myanmar, the town of Tachileik boasts at least three casinos catering to Thais. The western Cambodian border town of Poipet is also well known for its numerous casinos, many of which are controlled by Thai interests.
One newly opened property has hit the headlines, with Thai activists claiming it is actually in a Thai national park and not on Cambodian territory. According to local media reports, the casino, owned by local tycoon Lim Heng, opened on April 7 and is in a contentious border area that has not been properly demarcated. A Cambodian military officer however told the Khmer Times, the property was 100 metres from the border marker.
Bromberg said, were the government to muster the political will to push through gambling legislation in Thailand, the process could potentially be quite fast. In a prior review it was decided that existing legislation that covers the elements of gambling that are legal in the country could be adapted for casinos.
“I’m not sure when it will happen but at some point in the future you will see an IR,” he said.
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