Gambling offers only problemsThe 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.
The legislation to promote cruise ship business that passed the National Assembly in January allows casinos onboard Korean passenger ships, but bans locals from entering them. During the bill examination, the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries promised to restrict local access to casinos and run them exclusively for foreigners amid lawmakers’ concerns about gambling addiction. The media at the time raised hoopla about the potential of shipboard casinos of paving the way for open casinos that are legitimate for both nationals and foreigners.
But in May, the oceans and fisheries minister suddenly reversed his vow when he met with other economy-related ministers. He said the government was considering allowing locals access to onboard casinos. He said the first local cruise ship Club Harmony had to be closed in 2012 because it could not compete with foreign luxury vessels, all furbished with spaces for gambling.
He also argued that shipboard casinos are only run while at sea, and that business hours and betting chips are limited to quash concerns about excessive gambling. He claimed that the economic benefit should be considered above premature anxiety about potential harms from gambling.
But is casino that much of a deciding factor for cruise ships? According to Harmony Cruise, the operator of the now-defunct Club Harmony, it needed a casino to draw Chinese tourists. About 80 percent of revenue from cruise ship comes from tickets for the journey, food and services onboard and the rest comes from auxiliary charges during sail. Casinos typically contribute just 10 percent.
The cruise industry attracts customers with guided tours, gourmet dining services, top-class stages, dance clubs, swimming pools and restaurants. They need to have all the standard amenities, onboard entertainment activities and programs. They must also offer high standards of safety. Various regulations preventing a diverse array of facilities onboard have been a stumbling block for the local cruise ship business, not just the ban on casinos, Harmony Cruise said.
The data the ministry cited to argue that onboard casinos would not lead to gambling addictions can also be misleading. It said there was little possibility of developing an addiction to gambling during a voyage because the casino would be open for just five to six hours a day. But gamblers at Kangwon Land spend an average of seven hours in the facility. A full five hours could lead to obsession if someone becomes engrossed with a game at sea.
According to a study by the National Gaming Control Commission, addicts usually start gambling with innocent lottery tickets, but still wind up addicted all the same. It is not a matter of time or money spent. Gambling is fundamentally addictive. Korea offers the world’s largest selection of legitimate gambling activities. Korea can be a kind of heaven for gamblers when all the illegitimate gambling is included.
A study by the control commission showed Korea’s gambling addiction rate at 5.4 percent, twice or three times higher than in countries like Britain and Australia. About 64 percent of the population said the social cost from gambling’s ill effects was serious.
What does the government gain by breaking its word and going against public sentiment by allowing locals access to onboard casinos?
It is advisable to keep the law as it is and run casinos exclusively for foreign passengers. Revisions could be made according to developments in infrastructure, demand and service. The cruise industry should promote the economy, not profligate habit.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
The author is a professor at the Seoul School of Integrated Sciences and Technologies.
by Hur Jeong-ok