Gaming Reforms Critical To Sector Competitiveness

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A WELL-KNOWN tourism executive expressed hope the Government would "go further" than the industry's proposed changes to this nation's casino gaming regulations, telling Tribune Business that reform was "extremely important" for the Bahamas' competitiveness in this sector.

This newspaper understands that it has been more than a year since the Bahamas Hotel Association (BHA) and other stakeholders submitted their recommendations to the Government, but Robert Sands, Baha Mar's senior vice-president for government and external affairs, confirmed yesterday that the industry had not been informed of any further developments.

Adding that the BHA and casino gaming industry's position had "not changed", Mr Sands said reform was "critical to levelling the playing field" between the Bahamas and its competitors. These include both Florida and many other US states, plus rival Caribbean states such as Jamaica, all of whom see gaming as a lucrative opportunity to generate economic activity.

Speaking to the need to move on the reform process, Mr Sands told Tribune Business: "I think it's extremely important. It remains for this niche market a critical strategic positioning to advance these concerns.

"We are convinced that in doing so we will begin to level the playing field somewhat in terms of the close competition next door or in the Caribbean."

Leading hotel industry executives, including Kerzner International (Bahamas) managing director and president, George Markantonis, have previously expressed frustration with the seemingly slow gaming reform process, arguing that the Bahamas was losing ground against increasingly competitive jurisdictions who were targeting - and attracting - this nation's gambling base.

"We'd hope - and like - for it to go further than the recommendations we've made," Mr Sands told Tribune Business of the reforms.

"I would say the real issue is that we need to make amendments just to level the playing field, because if we are not careful we can lose ground very quickly and it will be even harder to get back to our current position or improve."

Gaming is a key component of the Atlantis resort's earnings streams, Kerzner International having said several years ago - when it was a public company - that the casino generated one-third of its revenues, the remainder being equally split between rooms and food and beverage.

The other major casino operator on New Providence is Baha Mar with the Crystal Palace. That offering, though, is set to be considerably upgraded via the $2.6 billion Cable Beach redevelopment, which has as its centrepiece a 100,000 square foot casino - the largest in the Caribbean - and associated hotel.

While implementing the proposed reforms would not, in and of themselves, guarantee the success of Baha Mar's redevelopment - one that is more reliant on gaming than Atlantis - it would certainly help.

"To put in context, the reforms will assist," Mr Sands told Tribune Business. "It's not the end all or be all, but it will certainly assist Baha Mar in certain goals going forward, and not only Baha Mar but the entire casino gaming industry."

The Our Lucaya is the other Bahamian property to offer casino gaming. It remains a vital attraction for the Bahamas to boast, enticing the very high spending, high roller customers the tourism industry depends on. In short, the Bahamas cannot afford to be without competitive casino gaming, for otherwise those attracted solely by the gambling - and many others - would go elsewhere.

Mr Sands said yesterday that among the proposed reforms were making the legislation and regulations governing the industry "competitive" with what existed in rival jurisdictions. The approval process for investment in the sector, and movement of table games and slot machines, were other areas of focus.

And the private sector also wanted to "widen the net of those allowed to gamble to permanent residents and junket representatives - entertainers on short-term work permits".

The Baha Mar executive added that the industry wanted amendments to be implemented "as soon as possible". Mr Sands previously revealed that the Crystal Palace's casino revenues in 2010 were down by 18.5 per cent or $5 million - from $27 million to $22 million. In the same period, Atlantis saw its casino revenue "down a little under 2009", by 8 per cent.

Vincent Vanderpool-Wallace, minister of tourism and aviation, was said to be in Cabinet yesterday and did not return Tribune Business's phone calls seeking comment.

In October 2010, he said the proposed reforms from the BHA and other stakeholders were "in front of me now".

The Minister said then the Government was looking to marry its own recommendations, which it believes will be "even more beneficial" to Bahamian casino gaming, with those proposed by the private sector, as it moves to "enhance and hold on to the significant competitive advantages" this nation has in the sector.

The Tribune