By: Park Si-soo

Controversy is swirling over the government’s plan to introduce cruise ship casinos for Koreans.

The Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries is pushing forward with the plan, arguing it will help attract foreign investment and revitalize the sagging shipping industry.

Major port cities, tour agencies and investment-hungry free economic zones welcome the move, insisting shipboard casinos open to locals will end up increasing visitors to rural towns and boosting their economy.

Opponents express concerns over possible social dysfunction, including the “mass production” of gambling addicts.

In particular, Gangwon Province and Incheon are vehement opponents _ Gangwon is home to Kangwon Land, the nation’s sole casino complex open to locals, and Incheon is working to open foreigner-only casinos to attract inbound travelers.

Incheon recently clinched a deal with U.S. casino operator Mohegan Sun to set up an integrated casino resort near Incheon International Airport.

The biggest hurdle for the plan is the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, the sole casino license issuer. The ministry has made it clear that it will not support the plan because it would “do more harm than good.”

“The oceans and fisheries ministry unilaterally announced the plan without consulting with us,” said Kim Chul-min, a tourism ministry’s director familiar with the issue.

Some say the plan will be difficult to be realized as long as the tourism ministry holds onto its current stance.

But others say the two ministries will end up finding a “positive” breakthrough with intervention of the Prime Minister’s Office or Cheong Wa Dae.

The ruling Saenuri Party backs the plan, while the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy opposes it.

An association promoting the cruise industry recently jumped into the heated pros and cons debate, calling on the tourism ministry to approve the plan.

“It will be beneficial to the country economically,” the association said. “Shipboard casinos and those on land are quite different. Above all, there is a limit in the number of passengers a cruise casino can accommodate. This means, its negative impact, if any, on society would be limited thus controllable.”

In fact, Singapore, Macao and many other Asian counties have secured stable economic growth with revenue from the casino industry, which is often called the “golden goose.” For instance, Singapore saw a steep increase of inbound travelers after opening casino resorts in 2010.

In contrast, politicians and administrators of Gangwon Province are eager to block the plan, believing that cruise casinos for locals would deal a strong blow to Kangwon Land’s profitability.

The sole casino complex open to locals was allowed to do business in Jeongseon, a small mountain town with abandoned mines, in 1998 on conditions that part of its revenue will be used to help ailing former miners and others suffering from financial hardship in the wake of mine closure. For them, a blow to Kangwon Land means they inch closer to poverty.

Gangwon-based politicians and activists are considering staging a protest in Seoul to oppose the plan.

“People living in Jeongseon and the surrounding area will face severe financial difficulties should the plan is approved,” said Sung Hee-jig, an activist. “The government should not ignore outcry of thousands of former miners suffering from pneumoconiosis and other diseases.”