Casinos could boost tourismThe tourism industry is a lucrative service sector South Korea must look to for future growth. Apart from drawing visitors, it has an immense trickle-down effect on lodging, transportation, shopping and restaurants that could boost domestic demand and create jobs. But our tourism industry remains far from satisfactory. Foreign tourists complain about a lack of diverse choices in accommodation, places to go and entertainment.
A stable revenue source is the casino industry. Of the 11 million foreigners who visited South Korea last year, 2.4 million enjoyed casinos here, spending 1 trillion won (948.4 million). Their tax, donation, flight, hotel and dining revenue totaled 500 billion won.
But casinos cannot draw a stable stream of visitors simply as gaming venues. Most of the world’s famous gaming hubs, like Las Vegas, Singapore and Macau have been transformed into complex tourism attractions that fluidly combine business, leisure, shopping and entertainment.
Mega-size integrated resorts that include world-class leisure attractions and business centers, in addition to casinos, are popular destinations for both families and businessmen. Singapore, an island just three times the size of Yeouido in Seoul, earns more than 50 trillion won a year from the tourism business.
South Korea has the geographic advantage of being the next-door neighbor of the world’s most populated mainland, where a two-hour flight could bring in an estimated 300 million high rollers.
Multinational leisure and gaming companies have been courting businesses and the Korean government because of the potential for growth and revenue from large-scale resort complexes in Korea. They are pitching multibillion-dollar investment projects, which would benefit our economy and tourism future.
But a ban on citizens’ entry into casinos that are the centerpieces of resort complexes serves as a stumbling block to their investment plans. Instead of opening casino access, the government could come up with an alternative, putting special restrictions and control in place to minimize the damaging effects of local citizens’ entry to the gaming facilities.
Singapore, which we can use as a benchmark, came up with a compromise - ID and an entry fee limit to filter out compulsive and low-income gamblers - to ease concerns about negative social impact and criminal activities. It thoroughly studied and weighed the economic benefit and social downsides and then established regulations and penalties. Its casino experiment has so far been successful.
South Korea is among a few countries, along with Nepal, Turkey, and North Korea, that bans its own nationals from entering casinos. We run one - Kangwonland Resort, several hundred kilometers from Seoul in a remote mountainous area - for Korean citizens as a one-off project. Rather than tourism promotion, its primary purpose is to help revive the local economy after the shutdown of the coal mines.
Earlier, when casinos were first allowed some 40 years ago, there had not been a restriction on locals. The entry ban was imposed at a time when the country was still poor, with per capita income of just $1,000, over fears of spurring addiction and profligacy. But times have changed. Koreans freely and often go overseas and spend as much as 2.3 trillion won a year in gaming facilities.
Various places around the world are equipped with high-end tourism infrastructure, but we still live with old-fashioned ideas, limiting ourselves in our potential to grow. We must break free from outdated theories and believe more in ourselves to move forward as a tourism powerhouse.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff
*The author is a professor in the College of Hotel and Tourism Management at Kyung Hee University.
By Seo Won-seok