The Chinese Vegas, Tainted Aces, Vegas not Wanted
Just a few years ago, during the tenure of Thaksin Shinawatra rumors started to abound about legalizing gambling and the possibility of casinos in Phuket.
Much was written and discussed at the time – but given the current political climate, it seems the issue is now viewed as a hot potato by the Prime Minister and coalition government.
Top of the agenda must be to achieve some sort of equilibrium in an economy which more often the not resembles a drunken sailor on shore leave, zig-zagging his way back to ship.
I recently attended The International Hotel Investment Forum (IHIF) in Macau, staged along the Cotai strip at The Venetian hotel.
Having been to the hotels alter ego in Vegas, I assumed most Asian "mega-hotels" and casinos bear resemblance to their Las Vegas counterparts – east meets west – Jackie Chan meets Owen Wilson and so on.
The Venetian has over 3000 rooms and a twin hotel, entertainment and casino complexes that employs around 17,000 staff.
Size aside, there is an undeniable cardboard flavor that lacks substance in the hotel, akin to scarfing down a happy meal at McDonald's and still being hungry for real food.
During a taxi ride from the airport I mull over the idea that the newly built Cotai or "City of Dreams" entertainment hub could have been more aptly branded "City of Lost Souls".
However I didn't see any biblical figures turned to stone on the short journey to confirm this.
Back in the casino, a midnight amble along the casino floor among card-sharks that never sleep and where Night of the Living Dead meets Soylent Green, I don't like what I see.
Meanwhile our "Thai-economy-sailor" in an effort to find the right path again has now sobered with a couple of double espressos – and is trying his best to get back to ship unaided by "quick fixes" of economic symbolic intoxicants.
The "sailor" and economy must find the right path to stability without diluting their integrity with alcohol and gambling.
Thailand's strongest selling point as a brand is the countries "Thai-ness"
People with great hearts, great food and a mystical culture that remains the envy of foreign tourist markets.
Well laid plans in Thailand often fall by the wayside, and of course the country has experienced turbulent times of late, but no other destination offers the zest, spice and sanook so widely enjoyed by Thais.
Trying to introduce casinos in Thailand and to Phuket seems like an incredibly bad idea.
Investing in additional imported labor to build such "mega-hotels" and casino's puts strain on the already troubled infrastructure in Thailand and working toward a generic Wal-Mart attitude for cut -rate accommodation, designed to draw-in flocks of tourists like sheep – may not be a beneficial model to follow suit.
If Casino's were introduced they would surely prey upon Thai iconic imagery and possibly even use theological references to hit home the "Thai experience" in the casino.
I am always troubled looking at chopped-off Buddha heads perched above doorways of guest houses and luxury hotels.
If one took an alternative approach and started cutting Jesus heads or those of the Mohammed and used them as decorum in wash rooms or bars: How would Christians or Muslims react?
Singapore seems to be taking more of a tempered approach to "mega-hotels"and furnishing taboos.
The imminent arrival of Sands, not only focused on gambling but providing large scale convention and meeting facilities with a view to attract more group bookings, seems tipped for success.
There wee no attempts in Cotai to recreate the "Vegas strip," but more as a small part of a larger tourism plan.
Though frankly speaking, Singapore has the regulatory apparatus to put on the brakes and a long term plan that could doubtfully be applied in the Thai "all or nothing scenario."
Gambling today often takes more than it gives to a community.
Lessons can be learned by looking at the financially troubled companies in Las Vegas that Wall street embraced and have now left out in the cold to fend for themselves, laden with debt and dim short term prospects.
Sustainable tourism is an issue that needs to be planned for and remains a challenge for the island to remain price-competitive with other top holiday destinations around the world.
Ensuring the longevity of Phuket's tourism industry will not be achieved by investing in "quick fix" schemes (such as Casino's).
We have to remember why tourists come here in the first place. The ace in the pocket of Phuket : the environment.
Leaving Macau, I was able to breathe a deep sigh of relief and come back to reality.
Indeed all that glitters isn't gold.
I'm not going to succumb anytime soon on the issue of gambling here in Thailand and hopefully the Government will continue to see through its shiny, though shallow allure.