Not long ago there was a beeline of investors wanting to open floating casinos in the popular tourist destination of Goa. There is no open promotion of casino industry by the state government as an industry, yet every now and then the authorities grant licence to a new investor, and another boat throws its anchor in the Mandovi.The latest to join the race was Casino Carnival which is owned by a five-star hotel in Panaji. Presently, seven ships are anchored in the river and there are indications that all are not doing well. Caravela, the first floating casino to be launched in Goa nearly ten years ago, closed down last year while Arabian Sea King has been in the dry docks for the last two years. And if the spokesperson of the Association of Offshore Casinos, Mr Narinder Punj is to be believed, a few more ships might join the ranks of the Caravela.
However, it is not as though offshore gambling is heading for the deep end, not in the near future at least. A quick perusal of revenue collections show that in the financial year 2009-10 Casino Royale contributed ` 3.73 crore to the exchequer. However, in the first three months of 2010-11 it shelled out ` 2.13 crore. A quick back of the envelope calculation indicates that by the end of the year Casino Royale could contribute almost ` 8 crore by way of taxes which is a two-fold increase. Similarly, the tax contributions made by Pride of Goa in 2009-10 was ` 1.81 crore. In the first five months of the new financial year it shelled out ` 1.13 crore. A rough projection shows that this casino will be paying more tax (` 2.3 crore approximately) this year. Does this mean casinos are doing better this year? One must remember that the higher revenues projected for this year is because of the higher entry fee introduced by the government and not a result of higher earnings. Leela Casino and Boa Sorte Casino are not doing as well as expected and it is too early to ascertain how Casino Carnival will impact the industry. The problem has more to do with too many operators competing for a slice of the pie rather than a dip in customers.
Floating casinos have been in the limelight ever since the home department unilaterally decided to increase their number beyond five. This was followed by a wave of protests from social activists and political leaders with Opposition leader Manohar Parrikar leading a campaign against these ‘vice ships’. In a rather desperate attempt to retrieve some political ground, the Chief Minister, Mr Digambar Kamat first hiked the entry fee on all casinos from ` 200 to ` 2,000 and then issued an order directing the casinos to move to the Aguada Bay. This resulted in casino owners filing a series of petitions in the High Court which eventually led to a reversal of the policy. The government has now decided to shift two to the Betim side of the river, two on the Panaji side and three to Ribandar. How this will impact on the business is yet to be seen, especially for the three which will have to move toward Ribandar and therefore incur more expenditure on ferrying customers to the ship and back.
Industry sources indicate that it has never been so bad for offshore casinos. Battered by high taxes and licence fees, stringent scrutiny from the media and activists and competition, offshore casinos are finding the going tough. Quite clearly the time for a shakedown is nigh. The tough will get going and the rest will sink. Perhaps, market forces might accomplish what the casino opponents could not, which is, banishing these ships from the Mandovi River.