PANAJI, India, June 24 (Reuters) - Like many visitors to the
Casino Royale Goa on a rainy Saturday night on India's western
coast, Salim Budhwani said he does not gamble but also had no
objection to the betting at the busy tables downstairs.
Despite socially conservative India's ambivalence about
gambling, consultancy firm KPMG estimated that $60 billion was
wagered in the country in 2010. Much of the gambling is illegal,
but attitudes are slowly changing as more Asian countries
embrace gaming as a revenue generator and tourist draw.
Legal gambling in the increasingly wealthy country of 1.2
billion is limited to state lotteries, horse races and a handful
of casinos. Most gambling in India, from penny-stake games at
street corners and card parties in affluent homes to wagers on
cricket and underground numbers games, is illicit and goes
"People are playing on the roadside everywhere. People are
playing in their houses," said Budhwani, 33, a luggage retailer
from the city of Hyderabad who had brought his family to Goa, a
tourist destination and one of two Indian states with casinos.
"People are educated, they know what's at stake."
Gambling on cricket, India's most popular sport, draws
hundreds of millions of dollars.
The country was transfixed last month by a scandal in which
several players were accused of taking bribes from bookies,
spurring calls for legalising and regulating sports betting from
the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, a
powerful business lobby, and others.
Legislation proposed after the cricket scandal is aimed at
making cheating in sports a crime although it does not address
regulating or legalising betting.
"It looks like the government has at least become amenable
to this discussion, which is important," said Vidushpat
Singhania, a lawyer who helped draft the match-fixing
legislation and favours legalising gambling.
Despite the allure of India for global operators, Indian law
forbids foreign direct investment in casinos, meaning companies
like Las Vegas Sands and Wynn Resorts can only
tap the market by targeting Indians going overseas.
Many wealthy Indian families hold wedding parties in Macau,
the world's largest gaming destination, bringing affluent guests
for the festivities and the gambling.
In recent years, major awards ceremonies for the massive
Bollywood film industry have been staged in Singapore's Marina
Bay Sands, Malaysia's Genting Highlands, Macau and South
Africa's Sun City, all gambling venues.
Besides drawing thousands of visitors from India's
well-heeled glitterati, some of the highest-stakes games around
these events involve film stars and producers, insiders say.
For many Indians, gambling is considered propitious around
the Diwali festival in October/November, with tens of millions
of rupees won or lost during illicit night-long sessions of teen
patti or flash, a three-card poker game.
"Indians are prone to gambling as much as the Chinese," said
Rakesh Jhunjhunwala, a billionaire investor who with his wife
holds a nearly 7 percent stake in Delta Corp, owner of
the Casino Royale Goa.
Inspired by Singapore's two thriving casino resorts, which
opened only in 2010 but are among the most lucrative in the
world, Asian countries from South Korea and the Philippines to
Sri Lanka are developing similar gambling projects.
Macau is adding at least six casino resorts in the next
three years at a cost of $20 billion. The Philippines is
building four, while Japan is mulling gaming legislation and
Taiwan is in the process of allowing casinos on offshore
In Sri Lanka, Australian billionaire James Packer's Crown
Ltd is close to agreement with authorities to build a
$350 million casino resort, which could be a significant draw
for visitors from nearby India.
In India, gaming regulation is fragmented and sometimes
contradictory, with some laws dating to the 1800s. Casinos fall
under the purview of provincial governments, and just two out of
35 states and other territories have them.
Online gaming is a grey area. While it is forbidden under
information technology law, it is not clear whether that applies
to betting on games of skill. Many Indians bet on cricket and
other sports at offshore websites, although remittances from
such activity violate Indian foreign exchange rules.
Given the regulatory thicket and slow pace of policymaking
in India, many industry-watchers say it will be years before
gambling in India becomes a major, mainstream proposition,
although a pragmatic acceptance is growing.
Michael Lobo, a hotel owner and state legislator from the
Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party that rules Goa, said he
personally opposes gaming but acknowledged it helps tourism and
believes it should be limited to holiday destinations and needs
"In the larger interest of Goa, where tourism is concerned,
we have to allow casinos," said Lobo, who favours banning Goans
from casinos and earlier this year threatened a hunger strike to
block the opening of India's first Playboy Club in Goa.
Jhunjhunwala said it could take roughly 15 years for casino
gaming to go from niche to mainstream in India and said
opposition to gaming is part of the democratic process.
"There was prohibition in Bombay once," he said, referring
to a ban on alcohol in India's financial capital, now known as
Mumbai. "The process of change is always, in India: opposed,
consolidation, opposed, acceptance."
CARDS AND KIDS
At the Casino Royale Goa, there is as much action on the
entertainment and dining floor as at the tables. When a Russian
dancer takes the stage, dozens of customers crowd forward to
record her performance on cellphone cameras.
Where in most places entry to casinos is free, those in Goa
have a cover charge. At the Casino Royale Goa, which floats on
the Mandovi river, the Saturday night entry fee is 2,000 rupees
($34), a hefty sum for India that deters the merely curious. Of
that, 500 rupees goes to the Goa government.
Once inside the 24-hour casino, food and drinks are free,
including for patrons who are not placing bets.
The crowd on a recent night included well-dressed young
couples as well as families, who can drop-off their small
children in the creche at the entrance level.
At some of the tables, dealers teach first-timers. Minimum
blackjack bets range from 200 to 5,000 rupees ($3.40-$85), with
a maximum bet of 50,000 rupees. The top baccarat bet is 300,000
Three-card poker is also available but roulette is
especially popular. "You don't have to spend much time," said
25-year-old Viral Khoda, from Belgaum, a town in the interior of
India. "It's quick."