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Tuesday, 17 July, 2001, 07:57 GMT 08:57 UK
Blackpool: The new Las Vegas?
Luxor Hotel, Las Vegas
Blackpool: Giving ancient Egypt the Vegas treatment?
By BBC News Online's Bob Trevelyan

These days, if you want to see pyramids and sphinxes, travel agents are as likely to suggest a trip to Las Vegas as a holiday in Egypt.

But Blackpool?

It may not have the fierce heat and palm trees but, if reclusive leisure tycoon Trevor Hemmings has his way, visitors to the faded Lancashire resort will soon see a lavish recreation of the Nile-side site and one just as efficient as its Nevada offspring at relieving visitors of their cash.

Mr Hemmings - a former builder who first made his fortune from Pontins holiday camps and now owns Blackpool's tower, piers and winter gardens - wants to build a gambling mecca on the town's seafront, starting with a casino and hotel complex inspired by ancient Egypt.

Blackpool beach and tower
Blackpool's more prosaic charms may soon be overshadowed
Plans for the Pharoah's Palace and up to five more giant gambling complexes hinge on the outcome of a long-awaited report into the UK's 30-year old gaming laws which was published on Tuesday.

Sir Alan Budd, the former chief economic adviser to the Treasury heading the inquiry, is expected to conclude that the laws are out of date and too restrictive.

He is expected to recommend to the government changes including the approval of Las Vegas-style "super casino" complexes, where punters can bet, play bingo and casino games under one roof.

Changes expected
Las Vegas-style gambling complexes
More slot machines in betting shops and casinos
Bigger slot machine jackpots
Casinos allowed to advertise
Other changes might allow bookmakers and casino operators to install more slot machines and increase jackpots, while casinos would also be able to advertise and offer live entertainment.

Besides recommending removal of a string of what the industry regards as petty and anachronistic restrictions, the report will also suggest setting up a pan-industry regulator as well as moves to protect children and "problem gamblers".

Casino numbers to double?

For casino operators, such as London Clubs International, Stanley Leisure and Gala, the potential prize of liberalisation is a huge expansion in business.

Current restrictions
No live music in casinos
No more than 10 slot machines in casinos, two in betting shops
Maximum machine jackpot of 15
No warm food in betting shops
No drinks at gaming tables
No non-members admitted to casinos
The number of casinos in the UK might almost double to about 200, industry analysts say.

More slot machines - a low cost, high margin business - would also boost profitability.

For the government, part of the attraction of casino complexes lies in the opportunity for reviving struggling economies such as Blackpool's.

Visitor numbers down

According to local public/private sector forum the Blackpool Challenge Partnership, Blackpool has the 12th lowest gross domestic product of any UK borough.

Visitor numbers have dropped 30% since the mid-1990s and unemployment in out-of-season months rises to 50% in some black spots.

Trevor Hemmings's Leisure Parcs says six casino hotels could be expected to create 25,000 jobs, generate 2bn in annual revenue and attract 30 million visitors a year to Blackpool by 2020.

Although some industry analysts see this as optimistic, the project has been enthusiastically endorsed by tourism ministry officials.

Gambling in the UK
Three in four adults gamble in some way each year
About 7bn is wagered each year
The national lottery is by far the most popular gambling activity
300,000 Britons a year visit Las Vegas
300,000 Britons are addicted to gambling
Local government leaders also approve. "Realistically, casinos offer the only solution to hauling Blackpool out of its downturn," deputy council leader Roy Fisher was quoted in the Observer newspaper as saying.

"We're desperately hoping Budd will give us the green light. We're all on tenterhooks."

The first proposed development - the Pharoah's Palace - is planned to have a 24-hour casino with 2,500 slot machines - the highest yield business - as well as 70 gaming tables and 500 hotel rooms.

Hoteliers' fears

But the high-profile project has not met with universal approval. Some hoteliers and guesthouse owners fear their businesses will be destroyed by huge hotel complexes subsidising room rates with casino takings.

Some critics are also concerned that gambling will attract criminal and other undesirable elements and lead to increased social problems.

Leisure Parcs hopes to have the Pharoah's Palace off the ground by 2006 but, even if the government accepts Sir Alan's proposals, full deregulation of gambling is likely to be some time coming.

Many of the recommendations will require parliamentary legislation and, with the Department of Culture, Media & Sport already working on a communications bill as well as possible changes in pub licensing laws, gaming deregulation will have to wait its turn.

This is likely to take about three years, analysts say.

See also:

05 Apr 01 | UK Politics
Gambling laws 'set for overhaul'
05 Jun 01 | Americas
Vegas gambles on cyberspace
06 Apr 01 | Business
Bookies braced for record takings
28 Mar 01 | Business
Australia may ban online gambling
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