Goa's casino industry comes under pressure

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Media caption,

Sameer Hashmi reports on Goa's gambling sector

As the wheel spins, and the white ball bounces across different coloured pockets with distinct numbers, Bahlu Jai Singh waits with bated breath.

He's hoping lady luck will be on his side this time after having lost $900 (£590) over the past two nights playing his favourite game - roulette. But as the ball settles in slot number four he realises he's lost another $200.

"I don't come here to win, but just to have some fun," he says. The 37-year-old businessman claims he is not an active gambler but comes to the casino for the experience. And that's the story of most people who visit Goa's casinos.

Goa is often referred as the Las Vegas of India.

It's one of the three places in India that allows legal casinos to operate, and the only state that permits live gaming, though with restrictions.

Live gaming, which means there's a person dealing you the cards, is allowed only on offshore casinos - so the gambling dens are onboard ships anchored on the Mandovi river overlooking Panaji, Goa's state capital. The casinos on land are only permitted to operate electronic games.

'Mass market'

Today, the state's 15 casinos - four of them offshore - receive some 15,000 visitors every day. Most of them are domestic tourists - who are in Goa on a holiday to enjoy the famous beaches, but end up visiting an offshore casino for the experience.

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Bahlu Jai Singh says he comes to the casino "just to have some fun"

The age group of these guests ranges from 25 to 40; working professionals, couples, businessmen or just a family from a small Indian city, can all be spotted here.

The casinos consciously market themselves as entertainment destinations - providing unlimited food, alcohol, live performances and gaming - all at one ship - for an entry fee that costs around $40. This helps them draw a lot more people, who otherwise would be wary of visiting.

"We are catering to the mass market, not the high rollers," says Jaydev Mody, chairman of Delta Corp, which operates two offshore casinos.

An average player spends $200-300 on gambling, with roulette and blackjack being the most popular games - and 20% of the visitors are serious players who come here just to gamble like Senthil from Bangalore.

He says: "Previously I used to travel to Macau twice a year, but now I come here every two months."

Casino visitors have been rising 30% annually - and casinos are now a significant revenue generator for Goa. It's estimated the industry contributes more than $30m a year to the state's exchequer in the form of taxes and levies.

Political opposition

But despite their rising popularity, casinos have been facing political heat and opposition in the state.

The licences of the four offshore casinos will expire next year on 31 March, and there's pressure on the government not to renew them - till they move out of the river Mandovi and relocate in the deep sea, away from the city.

There are two key reasons for this opposition.

Political parties and non-government organisations say that casinos are a bad influence and they are making many people gambling addicts.

"It is an evil affecting Goan society. Many young Goans are falling for this culture, ruining their life and destroying the families," Luizinho Faleiro, local leader of the main opposition party, the Indian National Congress, said earlier this year.

Critics also say the casinos are polluting the Mandovi river.

Ironically, the campaign to shut these casinos was initiated by the Bhartiya Janta Party, which is now ruling the state, when it was in the opposition. There is also a proposal to ban local residents from entering casinos altogether.

It's a suggestion that the state's chief minister, Laxmikant Parsekar, admits would be hard to implement.

"It will probably be difficult to screen and check the all entrants," he says.

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Critics say the floating casinos should be moved away from Goa

Casino owners deny the allegation and argue that the industry is creating jobs for locals.

Senior officials in the government say that any move to ban local residents from entering the casinos is unlikely.

"Any such move will be unconstitutional and will be counterproductive," says William Britto, owner of Chances casino and resorts.

Currently officials are scouting for an alternate location where the ships can be shifted after their licences expire. But like the last few times, the casinos are expected to get an extension again.

Growth hurdles

Among all this cacophony, the industry is also worried about future growth. With footfalls rising sharply every year, offshore casinos are worried that they will need more capacity to meet the growing demand.

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"We are catering to the mass market, not the high rollers," says casino chairman Jaydev Mody

Adding more ships won't help, they say, but if they were allowed to operate live games on land then that would help expand the market.

"We can create a destination just like Singapore or Macau. Create resorts and casinos and fill them up," says Mr Mody.

The current situation has left the local government in a dilemma - it is difficult to publicly acknowledge the crucial contribution made by casinos to the treasury, and on the other, it cannot create unfriendly policies that will harm casinos.

For now the industry is hoping that opposition voices will die down in the future, paving the way for their expansion. And given that there is a huge dearth of places in the country where people can gamble legally, Goa may just still turn out to be a winning bet for investors.