Thailand features heavily in the strategies of destinations around it in attracting Chinese tourism. Thailand is by far the most popular destination in Southeast Asia for Chinese tourists, with about 9 million Chinese tourists coming to Thailand between January and November 2017. This puts pressure on destinations like Myanmar, Cambodia, and Vietnam to set themselves apart. One solution that some officials are lobbying for in Myanmar, much like in Cambodia, is gambling.

Casinos could give Cambodia and Myanmar an edge over Thailand in attracting Chinese tourists

Casinos are illegal in Thailand, so they represent a means of giving destinations, without the advantage of branding that Thailand has, an edge. The problem for Myanmar, which already has a substantial number of casinos, is that such gambling operations are also illegal in Myanmar.

Many of Myanmar’s border regions have casinos to take advantage of tourists from neighboring countries. Local governments in Myanmar reportedly use these technically illegal operations to derive revenue to fund development projects. Many of the casinos were built initially with funding by Chinese investors who took much of the profits, with the rest going to local political actors.

Local governments in Myanmar have embraced casinos, even though such operations are still illegal

The illegal operations have proven popular among locals, but casinos along the Chinese border have been able to attract a substantial number of Chinese gamblers. This has attracted the ire of officials in the government of China’s Yunnan Province. Gamblers from Thailand are also drawn to casinos on islands near Kawthaung in the south of the country.

Given the gray area that these casinos operate within, it will be challenging to use them to attract more wealthy Asian tourists from China and elsewhere. Moreover, it is more challenging to determine how the government can best regulate and maintain technically illegal operations.

Chief ministers from the administrative divisions of Mandalay, Tanintharyi, Shan, Kayin, and Mon are lobbying the central government to amend Myanmar’s laws to allow hotels to have casinos.

Chinese tourists wouldn’t be the only target of these efforts. With gambling illegal in Thailand, Thai tourists are another attractive option for gambling revenue. However, with the overwhelming demographic advantage of China, both in terms of the number of potential tourists and relatively high purchasing power of Chinese tourists, Chinese tourists are likely the best bet for long-term revenue growth.

Chinese tourist arrivals to Myanmar are still dwarfed by the same figures in Vietnam and Thailand

Myanmar welcomed about 184,000 Chinese tourists in 2016, second only to Thailand with 243,000. This is a small figure compared to neighbors like Thailand and Vietnam, who received 8.7 million and 2.7 million Chinese tourists respectively in 2016. However, this does mean that there is still enormous potential for Myanmar to make itself a more attractive option for Chinese visitors.