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Minister touches off debate on allowing Koreans into casinos

Casino gamblers sit around a gaming table. The government is seeking to allow more casinos to admit Korean nationals. (The Korea Herald)
Casino gamblers sit around a gaming table. The government is seeking to allow more casinos to admit Korean nationals. (The Korea Herald)
The government plans to review whether to allow foreigner-only casinos to admit Korean nationals, citing the lack of casinos as one of the main reasons for the country’s unfavorable trade balances in tourism.

Currently, only one casino, Kangwon Land in Gangwon Province, admits Koreans.

Culture Minister Choung Byoung-gug told reporters Thursday that it was time to consider whether to allow more casinos to admit Koreans, sparking debates on the Internet on the extent of government control over the gambling industry.

Under the current law on free economic zones, a foreigner can open a casino in the FEZ if he or she invests more than $500 million there to run at least three different types of tourism businesses including a five-star hotel with an international convention center.

The government is seeking to allow casinos in the six FEZs and on Jeju Island to admit Korean nationals in a bid to attract more foreign investment and more tourists.

If the government decides to take the deregulatory step, other leisure facilities like those in Las Vegas should be developed along with the casinos, the minister added.

“Las Vegas started with casinos, but conventions, shopping malls and entertainment gradually took up bigger parts of the city’s economy, shifting to leisure industry for families,” Chung said.

“It is time we review our tourism industry policy with such trends in mind.”

Chung also said a study was necessary on whether to permit casinos on cruise ships.

The minister reiterated that a comprehensive policy plan was required to meet new demands, referring to the deindustrialization in the historical southeastern city of Gyeongju and eastern mountain resort area of Seorak.

“I can clearly say that it is not right for a government to invest in casino businesses,” Chung said.

“The Korea Tourism Organization has begun reviewing whether to keep running Seven Luck (casinos).”

Of the 17 casinos operating in Korea, 10 of them are in the red. The combined annual sales of the domestic casino industry, or the amount of gambling money lost by its customers, amount to 2.2 trillion won, and Kangwon Land accounts for more than half of it. The casino industry has long hoped for the government to lift the ban on Korean citizens’ access to casinos.

“The widespread belief that casinos should be open only to foreigners because they are a speculative business raises ethical questions,” Chung said.

“If there is something wrong about the casino industry, we should simply forbid it. If there is a positive side to the industry,

we should minimize the negative elements and open them to all adults.”

The fact that gamblers in domestic casinos lost more than 2.2 trillion won last year suggests that the entire sum of game money traded in the casinos would be astronomical.

“I’m not saying Koreans should enter the foreigner-only casinos now, but my point is that we should take a new approach from square one to keep up with the changing trends of the global tourism industry including casinos,” the minister said.

“As of now, we have no plans to permit Koreans’ entry to foreigner-only casinos.”

The ministry plans to look into whether more casinos should be run in Korea, their impact on the local economies and whether they meet the new demands of tourists.

Kangwon Land posted 1.26 trillion won in sales by admitting more than 3 million customers last year. The casino raked in 421.7 billion won in net profits, or more than 33 percent of its annual sales.

The three most successful casinos that are open to only non-Koreans are Paradise Walkerhill (295.8 billion won in sales last year), Seven Luck in Seoul’s Gangnam (250.8 billion won) and Seven Luck in Hilton Hotel (166.4 billion won), which earn much less compared to Kangwon Land.

By Kim So-hyun (sophie@heraldcorp.com)
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