It is 1 a.m. But for those crowding around the tables at Marina, one of Colombo’s newest casinos, the night is young.
After a lucrative round, a portly man holding a glass walks up to his friend and greets him in Hindi. Asked if he is a regular, the middle-aged man, who identified himself as a business agent from New Delhi, says he comes to Colombo once a fortnight. “I don’t gamble, I only bring clients here,” he says.
He has brought a bunch of businessmen from New Delhi. Sri Lanka’s casinos, which operated out of hotels earlier, draw a huge number of tourists, says a senior manager at Stardust, located right behind Marina. Both casinos belong to Ravi Wijeratne, one of the two casino giants here. Dhammika Perera, a local gaming mogul, is the other.
After casinos were legalised in 2010, business picked up, prompting the government to consider developing more “integrated resorts” under its Strategic Development Act. Last month, the Sri Lankan Parliament cleared the decks for three such multibillion-dollar integrated resorts, not without difficulty though.
Recognising vehement opposition from the country’s influential Buddhist clergy, those keen on seeing the Bill through dropped the term “gaming” from the proposal. The passing of the Bill also brought to focus, for the first time, tensions within President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s ruling coalition, with Sinhala hardline Jathika Hela Urumaya party, an important ally, voting against the Bill.
Sensing the disgruntlement within his government and outside, President Rajapaksa denied that casinos were coming up, but many allege that the term “mixed development” used in official documents is but a euphemistic reference to the gaming zones on the cards, including one to be set up by Australian gaming tycoon James Packer. However, government spokesperson and Minister Keheliya Rambukwella’s statement that the government would not oppose casinos had fanned fears over possible addition to the country’s casino-scape, which currently has four authorised players.
Hardly affected by parliamentary debates and opposition, casinos continue to see excellent business, according to managers. Indians, who are regular patrons, are part of the reason.
Marina has designed packages aimed at Indian tourists, one of the many men clad in black suits says. A Sinhala youth, a marketing team employee, even speaks Hindi, just as the casino plays Bollywood music for its main clientele. The package covers everything from flight tickets and airport pick-up to star hotel accommodation and sight-seeing options. “But who wants to go sight-seeing here,” says the Delhi agent, laughing loudly. “They spend the entire two days at the casino which takes good care of them.”
They usually gamble in the range of Rs. 2-5 lakh. “If my client wins, I get a small commission from him. If the client loses, the casino gives me commission.” Some of the regular players who bet on bigger amounts, it is said, transfer money to the casinos’ account online and use it over multiple weekend trips.
Colombo, thanks to affordable airfare and close proximity, draws gaming lovers from India, which has no casinos except off Goa’s shore. Asked if Indians make a lot of money, the Delhi agent says: “In the business of gambling, no one except the casino makes a lot of money.”
Business seems brisk at 2 in the morning, going by the number of SUVs perched at the 24-hour casino’s sea-facing lobby.
Inside, the tables are set under gaudy chandeliers. The smell of tobacco — casinos supply cigarettes, alcohol and food for free — hovers around the hall that is brimming with people, mostly men. The only women seen are heavily made-up, sitting cross-legged at some of the tables, particularly those with higher amounts as minimum bet. Some of them are fidgeting with their smart phones, and others are staring at the table emptily. The “entertainment ladies”, says the Delhi agent, are mostly from Thailand and China. “Sometimes the Indian gents take them out.” However, managers say the women are also there to play.
Indians account for the maximum number of tourist arrivals to Sri Lanka — over 2 lakh visited the country last year — but increasingly, many Indians are making exclusive weekend trips just to gamble.
Bellagio, another popular casino situated in the heart of Colombo, has nearly 2,000 Indian members who are regulars, according to Nalin Samarawickrama, its marketing executive. “We get tourists from Bangladesh, the UAE and China, but many of our regular clients are from India.” There are new visitors too, like the Bangalore-based entrepreneur on holiday, who was trying his hand at blackjack with a minimum bet of LKR 500 (about Rs. 230). “When you split your chances, always go for a hit on one of them,” he advises a friend, as the croupier lays out the cards mechanically.
A television screen shows Mumbai Indians playing Chennai Super Kings, but no visitor seems remotely interested in the game for, they are engrossed in their own game of fortune. A waiter sporting a bow-tie stops to check the score. “I do 10-hour shifts and I am here all night. It gets more crowded after midnight,” he says. “It is big money at those tables.” Big money, essentially, runs into several lakhs.
At a corner table were four dhoti-clad men talking among themselves amid live reggae music and the occasional cheering that drowns it. One of them gazes at the chips on his table, sipping his drink occasionally. Sethu, a businessman from Palakkad in Kerala, says he visits Colombo every six months. “It is not going too well today. I am losing more and more money,” he says returning to his game.