By Costas Apostolides
THE GOVERNMENT’S plans to legalise casinos have gone down well with business groups, the public and the tourist industry, but it essentially puts the cart before the horse. Cyprus has no policy on gambling and has neither the laws nor the infrastructure to control the organised criminal element linked to gaming.
It is said that there are no casinos in Cyprus south of the green line and some 24 north of the line. Really? A friend, visiting Cyprus from the UK in April, went to a “casino” in Ayia Napa where he won a very useful €140. When I said that casinos were illegal in Cyprus, he replied that there had been a huge sign outside the casino stating exactly what it was.
Meanwhile gambling openly exists in the traditional coffee shops and is a part of community life, especially in the villages. The government has a lottery system which it openly promotes with some ethically low level advertising implying that if you play you are rich the next day. Then there is the agreement with Greece that allows Greek gambling giant OPAP to run a series of lotteries (Lotto, Proto, Joker etc and open gambling Chino) through their shops scattered around the country. The benefits to Cyprus are a state secret and dubious at best, while OPAP is probably the greatest advertiser in Cyprus. Any charity can organise an unsupervised lottery after receiving permission from the ministry of finance. All football clubs can organise high paying and high revenue collecting bingo sessions, and some are known to hire these rights out to some dodgy characters. There are hundreds of betting shops. There were even more online casinos before parliament banned them, and at one time a competing online casino would be firebombed almost every night. After the ban, OPAP shops became the focus of the attacks. Then there is the Nicosia race course with races every week and gambling possible throughout the island
Gambling is therefore here, even if legal casinos are not, but there is no comprehensive gambling policy, and no state institution to regulate gambling properly. If the government is serious about casinos it must first develop a comprehensive casino regulation policy and set up an appropriate mechanism to control the whole industry. This has to be done first as the present arrangements with the ministry of finance are a total failure and essentially mean that there is no coherent policy.
What we have is socially far worse than organised casinos. But before proceeding to legalising casinos, it is essential that there is a comprehensive gambling policy in place with laws covering every aspect and a supervisory body with the powers and organisation it requires to ensure the legitimate operation of casinos. Casinos deal in cash and attract gangsters like flies. The underworld must be kept out.
AKEL and others oppose the legalisation of casino in Cyprus on social grounds, because they create a gambling habit and destroy businesses, families and encourage organised crime. There is truth in this, but what we have today is far worse as gambling is still available to the masses, and affects many homes. If you visit an OPAP shop and watch the Chino players (a sort of bingo running throughout the day about every five minutes) it is quite clear what a serious form of gambling it is.
Organised crime is well established having grown out of prostitution, and then extending into gambling, protection rackets (note fires in pubs), and drugs (clubbing drugs in Ayia Napa, but harder elsewhere especially where there are social problems). These crimes have to be dealt with in a consistent manner, with appropriate laws and by special units isolated from the rest of the police force (therefore eliminating the farce of police tip offs).
The social implications of gambling are there already but have not been addressed. They should be tackled by appropriate gambling policies, and social measures to ameliorate the problems created by gambling where that is possible.
Last week the government announced that it had decided to opt for a Singapore model of a super casino resort, sort of an adapted Las Vegas style, with one operator in one location (and possibly a branch elsewhere). It was announced that this would attract an investment of €700 million or more, and 500,000 tourists, creating over 3,000 jobs, and bring money into the state treasury.
The alternative considered and rejected was for individual casinos in each of the tourist resorts, Paphos, Limassol, Larnaca, Ayia Napa/Paralimni as well as Nicosia and the hill resorts (possibly Platres). This option would also attract investment and tourists and would upgrade all the tourist areas if done properly.
Having spent many nights in five star hotels watching people with nothing to do after dinner, I can see that one of the advantages of a casino is that it could introduce good quality entertainment. Certainly a casino resort would achieve that, but it would not improve matters much for the rest of the country. Assuming the super casino resort is centrally located – that is within range of Limassol, Larnaca and Nicosia – it would not upgrade the tourist product for Paphos and Ayia Napa, while it would kill the chance of revitalising the mountain resorts. Therefore the regional implications could be quite serious.
Furthermore a super casino is presented as a measure to revitalise the economy, encourage investment and reduce unemployment, but in fact it will have a time line of at least five to six years, that is as long as the natural gas investments. The one super casino project will not in fact generate activity for at least a couple of years with the start of construction work at least three years away (one year to award contract, two or more for planning and building permits and three years for construction). In contrast, regional casinos could be in operation within a year in some cases (for example by converting the Forest Park Hotel in Platres) while there are appropriate facilities or hotels in Paphos and Ayia Napa/Paralimn employing hundreds of people.
The gambling sector as a whole should be reorganised within a comprehensive policy first, while a plan of action against organised crime should be in place. Casinos, providing high quality entertainment and with strict regulations, should then be established in the mountains, Paphos and Ayia Napa/Paralimni. A centrally located super casino resort could also be established following correct tender procedures and on the lines approved the government.
Costas Apostolides is chairman of EMS Economic Management Ltd ([email protected])