The stakes were raised this week on Pattaya’s future after a parliamentary committee recommended the city as one of five nation-wide bases for legalized gambling. Committee deputy chairman Pichet Chuamuangphan said legislation would be introduced to earn revenue, collect taxes, curb illegal casinos and discourage online gambling. According to recent surveys, at least half the adult Thai population has indulged in gambling over the past year.
There have long been rumors that Pattaya has a secret casino base, equipped with roulette wheels and blackjack tables, ready for opening when the whistle blows. Claims on the internet have ranged from the Ambassador Hotel in Na Jomtien and the Imperial Pattaya Hotel on Second Road to The Avenue mall complex and even Terminal 21 in north Pattaya. There is not a scintilla of evidence to support any of these claims.
In reality, the concept of a legal casino has changed a lot in recent times. Take Singapore as an example. Its two integrated resorts Marina Bay Sands and Resorts World Sentosa are world-class theme parks offering a range of leisure activities, five-star restaurants and top-notch hotels. The Las Vegas Sands Group, which owns more US casinos than anyone else, last year endorsed the idea that Thai casino complexes might best be built from scratch. A casino hub for Pattaya would best be situated on the outskirts because of the regular traffic snarl-ups downtown.
Former premier Thaksin Shinawatra came close to opening casinos in 2003 when he proposed amending the hostile 1935 gambling act to extend the legal loopholes of the national lottery, some horse racing, cockfighting and combat sports. Thaksin suggested adding casinos to the list of lawful activities. He failed because of internal political troubles which led to the military coup of 2006 and also the hostility of the then Royal establishment to the casino concept.
But in 2022 the pro-gambling lobby feels much stronger. Aside from the Muslim-majority countries of Brunei and Indonesia, Thailand is the only ASEAN nation not to have casinos. Even prime minister Prayut Chan-o-cha (personally opposed to gambling) said during the pandemic that illegal, back-street casinos had become super-spreaders of the virus. It is well known that Pattaya’s real estate industry is delighted with the prospect of legalization which will hike property prices. The prospect of boosting tourism, whilst raking in billions in any currency from taxation, is making the treasury lick its lips.
Legalized gambling in Pattaya is coming soon, with a vote likely taken after the next general election when the pro-military parties are expected to fare poorly. Meanwhile, the many arguments against casinos – fundamentalist religious beliefs and fear of corruption to name but two – are being heard less and less. You can bet your shirt on it.