Thailand presses case for casinos to boost revenues, tourism and jobs

April 2, 2024 - 9:37 AM
File photo of casino in Paignton Pier, S Sands, Paignton, United Kingdom (Image by Lee Thomas via Unsplash)
  • Illicit gambling rife in Thailand
  • Previous proposals stymied by domestic opposition
  • Gaming sector sees big potential for Thailand

 A bill that would legalize casinos in Thailand could be passed in the current government’s term, an official said on Friday, as the prime minister backed a move he said would create jobs and revenue and regulate a thriving illicit gaming sector.

Casinos are illegal in Thailand and the only gambling allowed is at state-controlled horse races and on the lottery. But illicit gambling, soccer betting, underground casinos and lotteries are rife.

Many in the gaming industry believe a legal casino market in Thailand would be a huge success in drawing more visitors to a country already a magnet for foreign tourists, providing strong competition for the world’s biggest gambling hub Macau, the only place in China where citizens can legally gamble in casinos.

“We have to admit that there is illegal gambling in the country, we are trying to get rid of (it) but it cannot be wiped out, so we have to rethink and see that it is time for this,” Deputy Finance Minister Julapun Amornvivat told reporters, adding Singapore would be a model to emulate.

The issue has gained traction in recent days as parliament approved a plan to study the possibility of creating entertainment complexes that would house casinos, as well as other features like concert halls and venues for local sports like Muay Thai boxing, cockfights and horse racing, at which bets could be placed.

The plan did not specify how many such complexes would be created but it recommended they be located within 100 km (62 miles) of airports. Thailand is targeting a record 40 million foreign visitors this year.

Under the proposal, private companies would shoulder the cost of construction and operation while the government would be responsible for taxing and regulation, Sorawong Thienthong, vice chairman of the parliamentary committee, told Reuters.

Conservative resistance

Legalization of gambling has been discussed in the past but no government has gone ahead due to public opposition and resistance from conservatives in the predominantly Buddhist country.

In a 2021 opinion poll, 47% of respondents opposed legalizing gambling over concerns about crime and morality, while 21% were supportive and 18% were partially in agreement with the idea.

Advocates have said illicit gambling is already entrenched but poorly policed in Thailand and the country would benefit considerably from regulating it.

In Southeast Asia, Cambodia, Singapore, Myanmar and the Philippines have legalized casinos. Huge complexes exist in border towns of Thailand’s immediate neighbors, catering overwhelmingly to Thai and Chinese customers, many on weekend junkets.

“We can regulate the grey economy and collect taxes,” Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin said on X social media.

“We do not want to promote gambling, but would rather supervise it and use the investment to create jobs.”

— Reporting by Chayut Setboonsarng, Panu Wongcha-um and Orathai Sriring; Editing by Martin Petty and Neil Fullick