Saturday, October 29, 2011
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Viren Mehra, 35, an investment banker from Mumbai, digs his elbows into the edge of a green baize table, transfixed by the Chinese woman croupier dealing out the cards. He's not overawed by the world's largest casino. The gilded, cavernous, chandelier-spangled $2.2 billion Venetian Macao spans 10 football fields. He ignores the fact that he's the only Indian at a table packed with chain-smoking Chinese. Yellow-jacketed hostesses periodically refresh gamers' glasses from carts loaded with water, orange juice and milk. The tobacco-laden airconditioned air is punctuated by whoops from some of the tables. Mehra is a regular, making six or seven visits a year, jetting down to Hong Kong and from there taking a 45-minute ferry ride to Macau(also spelt Macao). Here, he transacts business worth millions with hedge fund investors and corporate czars.
The venue is either the gaming floor at The Venetian or at the Macau Golf and Country Club. Mehra's five-yeargambling record: wagers of Rs. 50 lakh at the tables, wins of Rs.45 lakh. Net loss: Rs. 5 lakh. His favourite game? "Poker. Because it's all about thinking fast, having a head for numbers and keeping nerves of steel. Exactly what I need in my line of work."Mehra is part of a new breed of Indian gamblers with high disposable incomes who fly down to exotic foreign locales to chance their luck. The passengers on the Hong Kong-bound late-night flight out of Delhi's Indira Gandhi International Airport are mostly male. There are wolfpacks of Sikh businessmen from Chandigarh who mix beer and whisky on board and entrepreneurs from the Hindi heartland who fiddle with the inflight entertainment even before take-off. Rakesh Kumar (name changed), a commodities trader fromIndore and a regular, spends approximately $10,000 each time he hits the casinos. He prefers the casinos in Singapore because they are "Asia's safest gambling destinations". "There are no sleazy activities there," he says primly. Kumar has been lucky only once in as many as 10 visits. And each time he boards a flight to Singapore, Kumar finds many heading to the city-state only for gambling. The flights carrying Indian gamblers are going beyond the domestic gambling destinations of Goa and Sikkim. In Macau, the number of Indian tourists rose from 5,000 in 2002 to 1.69 lakh in 2010. They are now the biggest chunk of tourists after the Chinese and an increasingly common sight at tables in Macau, which hosts 34 casinos. "Indians can be seen with mobile-phone sized chips of HK $1,000 at the casinos and will place one peti (Rs. 1 lakh) on a single round of baccarat," says Pawan Bagri, 35, a Kolkata-based stockbroker. Indians, whom the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) considers the city's biggest spenders, are also top punters at Singapore's two mammoth casinos.
The casinos' projected earning of $6.5 billion this year is expected to go up to $8 billion by 2014-over half from Indian, Chinese, Australian and Indonesian tourists. Sri Lanka, where gambling was taboo, is in the process of legalising it. The island nation hopes to repair its economy with Indian tourists. "Indian tourists are already our largest arrivals over the past three years and entertainment is an area we want to focus on," says Nalaka Godage, chairman of the Sri Lanka Tourist Board.
|5 GREAT GAMBLING MOVIES Seedy card games and sexy vamps. Casinos are Bollywood's vice dens. GAMBLER (1971) DevAnand is the card sharp on Lady Luck's roller-coaster. The GREAT GAMBLER (1979) Twin Amitabh Bachchans. One a gambler who's never lost, the other a policeman on his trail. KITES (2010) Hrithik Roshan is Jay, a man who lives by his wits. Bollywood's first Las Vegas sojourn. TEEN PATTI (2010) Amitabh Bachchan and Ben Kingsley battle each other in this remake of the 2008 hit 21. DOUBLE DHAMAAL (2011) Macau's Bollywood debut. The comedy had Sanjay Dutt playing a casino owner.|
In India, public gambling is legal only in Goa and Sikkim. Elsewhere, the Public Gambling Act, 1867, prescribes fines and a one-year jail sentence for offenders. Gambling, however, thrives as an underground industry estimated by a 2010 kpmg report at $60 billion (Rs. 2.7 lakh crore) a year. This is the pie the overseas destinations are eyeing.
For years, Kathmandu used to be the place to be at, but with its eight casinos under threat of closure for non-payment of taxes, its lure is on the wane. For Indian gamblers, it's either the glitzy gaming tables of Macau, which give the Chinese special administrative region an annual turnover of $15 billion, four times that of Las Vegas, or the vertiginous towers of Singapore's shimmering Marina Bay Sands casino. Both cities have direct flights from Delhi and Mumbai. "A round trip to Macau costs just Rs. 23,000, about as much as it costs to fly from Delhi to Port Blair," says Jinal Shah of Zenith Holidays.
|"Why would an Indian gambler endure visa hassles to go half-way across the globe to Las Vegas when the world's gaming capital is just six hours away?" ARUNA JHA, Restaurateur, Macau|
Macau's Indian tourist surge began when half of Bollywood, from Amitabh Bachchan to Shah Rukh Khan, descended on it during the International Indian Film Awards in 2009. The event mirrored the former Portuguese colony's mega casino boom.
"Why would an Indian gambler endure visa hassles to go half-way across the world to Las Vegas when Macau is so close?" asks Aruna Jha, 52, who runs three Indian restaurants on the island, which offers visa on arrival for Indians. The Kathak dance teacher moved here from Dehradun 28 years ago. A fourth restaurant is on the cards. "I'm in the casino capital of the world," she says, adding, "I need a fourth card." Four other Indian restaurants have opened to cater to the Indian tourist rush.Singapore opened two casinos in 2010, at Sentosa and another at the Marina Bay Sands. Built for $10 billion each (Rs. 45,000 crore), they are now thriving centrepieces delivering bumper profits and reeling in thousands of Indians. The STB predicts its casinos will soon overtake Las Vegas and become the world's second-largest gambling hub-after Macau-by the end of 2011. An estimated one million Indians would have landed in Singapore's Changi airport by the year-end, spending over $750 million, a sharp increase from last year's $560 million spend. "At least 15 to 20 per cent of them go to the casinos," estimates Wai Kee Choong, head of Regional Gaming at Nomura Asia.
The get-rich craze saw five Indian tourists getting arrested in January this year for using fake chips to gamble at the city-state's Marina Bay Sands Casino.
|"At least 15 to 20 per cent of the tourist spend in Singapore goes to the casinos." Wai Kee Choong, Head of Regional Gaming and Lodging Research, Nomura Asia|
Singapore's Indian restaurants have doubled in just two years, from 45 in 2009 to 82 this year. Indian eateries are second only to the city-state's 384 Chinese restaurants. Almost all restaurants in Singapore's shopping malls and hotels serve Indian cuisine.
Chinese gamblers, who outnumber Indians 10 to 1 in both Singapore and Macau, play for luck. For Indians, gambling has a social and religious sanction, especially in the run-up to Diwali. Yet what happens in Macau, stays there. Jha recounts how one of her gambler patrons, a stone trader from Delhi, refused to take phone calls. He had told his family he was at a quarry in Rajasthan. The family of another inveterate gambler received a twin shock when they were informed of his death in Macau; he was supposed to be in Mumbai.Could it be because prostitution and gambling are considered bedmates? And there is an air of illegitimacy attached? On Macau, the island's Russian and Chinese prostitutes scatter calling cards with cellphone numbers on the pavements. There are jokes about a dozen Indian tourists trying to bargain a bulk discount out of an outraged Russian prostitute. High-heeled streetwalkers prowl the bars and casinos swinging handbags and soliciting clients. Travel agents have a polite word for such activity: they call it "nightlife".
But food is perhaps more important than sex. Gamblers like Hitesh Shah, a 47-year-old businessman from Mumbai, prefer Goa to Singapore because they can't live without Indian vegetarian food. Live gaming took off in Goa with the 2008 arrival of three offshore casinos. Goa now has 24 casinos which earn the state Rs.250 crore annually. Sikkim, which opened its second casino in a five-star hotel this year, hopes to cash in too. It aims to lure away Kathmandu-bound gamblers once it gets its own airport at Pakyong in 2013.
|"Business is up 500 per cent since 2008.We are competing with neighbouring countries using our global casinos, easy access and personalised service." SHRINIVAS NAYAK, CP Group, Goa|
Goa's casino business has grown by 500 per cent in three years and hopes to compete with Macau and Singapore. "Easy access, personalised service and local food make us a preferred destination," says Shrinivas Nayak, a spokesman for the CP Group, Goa's biggest gaming company. The red carpets are being laid out for the Indian high rollers. The red carpets are being laid out for the Indian high rollers. They have never had it so good.
- With Roshni Jayakrishnan and Kiran Tare