TAIPEI, Taiwan - The offshore island group of Matsu is likely to attract a large number of Chinese tourist gamblers, observers said on Sunday, a day after residents voted to allow Taiwan's first casino.
A wave of visitors from the mainland could provide a welcome boost to the cluster of islets close to the China coast, as detente in the Taiwan Strait has caused a decline in income from military personnel, they said.
"People that are looking to building casinos anywhere in Taiwan are eyeing Chinese tourists," said Anita Chen, a Taipei-based managing director for US-based lobbying firm Park Strategies and an expert on the gaming industry.
A total of 1,795 people voted "yes" in Saturday's referendum on allowing a casino while 1,341 voted against it and 28 cast invalid votes, said the Matsu government, adding the turnout rate among eligible voters was 40 percent.
This is in sharp contrast to residents of another offshore island, Penghu, who voted against hosting gambling facilities in 2009.
The difference is that whereas Penghu has a solid infrastructure and healthy tourism industry, Matsu, with a population of about 10,000, is being hit much harder by the gradual drawdown of troops in the Taiwan Strait.
As many as 50,000 soldiers were stationed in Matsu during the Cold War, but the number is now down to just 3,000, partly reflecting the dramatic improvement in ties with China in recent years.
But even proponents of introducing gambling have suggested that a thriving casino business is years in the future.
"We don't know when the government will start issuing gambling licences," said Yang Sui-sheng, head of Lienchiang County, the administrative name of the archipelago that Matsu belongs to.
"We hope it'll be as soon as possible, so the entire process (of setting up a casino) can be completed within a period of three to five years," he told reporters.
The government will also have to decide on practical matters, such as which ministry will be in charge of overseeing the Matsu gambling industry.
"Probably, they'll need three to five years at the earliest," said Chen of Park Strategies.
A draft Gambling Act has gone through two amendments and is still being processed by Taiwan's Cabinet, but could be passed within the next year, she said.
After that, it could take a year for the government to put together a bid for an operator, and once a winner has been found, it could be another three years before the casino has been built and is ready for operation, she said.