Casinos are a boon, not a burdenThe Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries is considering legislation that would allow Korean nationals to gamble at sea, hoping to spur the luxury cruise and tourism industries. Some believe the casinos are a necessity for local cruise ships, offering passengers a diversion during long trips and making Korean vessels competitive with those from foreign companies But critics oppose the idea, fearing social costs from increased gambling access and the financial blow to Kangwon Land, the only casino Korean nationals are permitted to visit.
Cruise ships can be a tremendous boon to the economy. Luxury vessels can greatly benefit the economies of host cities and ports of call during their sea journey, vitalizing related industries - and the they’re only getting more popular. More than 7 million tourists are expected to cruise to Asian countries like Korea, China, and Japan by 2020. Korea’s economy can get a boost if local enterprises get in on the action. A cruise ship can create 1,500 jobs and bring 200 billion won ($179 million) into the economy.
But Korean companies cannot easily launch cruise businesses. A vessel costs more than 300 billion won, and the business environment at home is not as generous as it is overseas. One of the major setbacks is the law banning onboard casinos. Vessels carrying the Korean flag cannot include gambling facilities, and Korean nationals are prohibited from stepping foot in any casino other than Kangwon Land in Gangwon.
Cruise liners around the world are becoming bigger and more luxurious. Passenger ships now include restaurants, indoor and outdoor pools, theatres, spas, casinos and duty-free shops. The ships must be gigantic and provide a variety of activities to pass the time during the voyage. Passengers consider onboard entertainment to be as important as their actual destination, and expect top-quality service.
Travel agencies selling cruise trip packages will only recommend boats that have these services. Because of this, casinos need to be onboard Korean vessels.
Cruise liners can be likened to amusement parks. All visitors don’t enjoy the same rides, facilities and activities, but they nevertheless choose parks that offer the widest selection of things to do . Tourists planning cruise trips seek diversions from everyday life and new experiences. They are unlikely to choose Korean ships that offer limited services and amenities. A local cruise liner had to quit a few years ago because it wasn’t getting enough business. The industry must not be hampered by regulations, because companies will already have to make huge investments to compete in scale and service with foreign carriers.
Unlike casinos on the peninsula, gambling facilities onboard are not easily accessible. A potential gambler would first need pay for the cruise package, at least 2 million won per person. Few would want to pay that much just to play a game of cards. People also cannot get easily get into the ships while they are docked. Casinos would also only operate while at sea, so it is highly unlikely that people could develop an addiction during their trip.
The idea of banning local passengers from casinos to contain the ill effects of gambling is also bizarre. There are many online gambling sites, and Koreans can visit places like Macau to gamble. Because casino entry and gaming can be watched and regulated through checking identification, setting business hours, and limiting total bets, gambling could be played without concerns of excess. A professional gambler would not risk exposing his or her identity by playing onboard.
There is another concern that revenue of the sole casino for Korean nationals could be hurt if shipboard casinos are allowed. But users of the local casino and passengers on cruise ships are different consumers entirely. Passengers go on cruise trips for the variety of choices in activities both onboard and ashore, not just to gamble. A casino would just be another leisure activity.
Not everyone who visits Las Vegas turns into an addict and ruins their life. Most play a game of cards just for fun and the thrill of the moment. They can return to their normal lives just fine after the trip. We must not get hypersensitive about casinos and have faith in the good judgment and sense of our people.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
The author is the head of the main policy research division at the Korea Maritime Institute.
by Hwang Jin-hee