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Last Updated: Wednesday, 7 March 2007, 13:32 GMT
From hippy hang-out to casino capital
By Zubair Ahmed
BBC News, Goa

The gambling boat, Caravela
It has been described as a floating pleasure palace
The atmosphere is electric. A Russian belly dancer shakes her body on one end of the floor. On the other, a Caribbean band sings effortlessly.

Between them are men and women from various parts of India and beyond, enjoying a gambling night out.

This is Goa's own Las Vegas.

The entertainment cruise ship, Caravela, sits majestically on the edge of the River Mandovi.

On board, dozens of men and women join in live games of American roulette, poker and Black Jack.

'Casino Goa'

Goa is on the road to becoming the casino capital of South Asia, trying to take advantage of the uncertain political climate in the present casino hub, Kathmandu in Nepal.

But there are mixed feelings about the new tag.

Goa opposition leader Manohar Parikkar
Casinos are criminal-oriented, prostitution-oriented and gambling cannot deliver good tourism
Goa opposition leader Manohar Parikkar

Entertainment industry bosses and pleasure-seekers were disappointed by the state government's recent decision to open only five new off-shore casinos, as opposed to the 10 which were originally proposed.

Amit Shah, who lives in the US, visits Casino Goa on board the Caravela every year.

He says he would have preferred more of them: "You tend to get bored of playing in the same casino. If there were more casinos we would have hopped from one to another and would have had more fun."

But religious and anti-gambling bodies are unhappy.

"We see it as a problem. The church has apprehensions about the multiplication of casinos," said Father Loila Pereira, the spokesman for the state's influential Catholic Church.

Entertainment taxes

The government's proposed new casinos are an attempt to attract high-end tourists.

Goa's existing casinos (five inside five-star hotels) are believed to have added to the foreign tourist traffic, which has gone up to over 320,000 a year, an increase of 20% over the last two years.

It is estimated that there are 2.2m domestic tourists who visit Goa annually.

Slot machine - file photo
It is feared that the casinos could undermine Goan culture

The casinos bring in revenue for the state government. Each off-shore casino has to pay an annual $1.1m licence fee. This is exclusive of entertainment taxes.

But critics fear that they will bring in all the vices associated with gambling.

The leader of the opposition and the former state Chief Minister, Manohar Parikkar, says casinos are "criminal-oriented, prostitution-oriented and gambling cannot deliver good tourism".


But Narendra Punj, the director of Casino Goa, says the vices associated with the casinos are a myth perpetuated by Bollywood. He says that it was during Mr Parikkar's regime that his casino was launched six years ago.

"The criticisms don't worry me. If you are operating fairly and following the rules you should not worry," he said.

"Bollywood portrays casinos in a negative light. The myths need to be exploded. We have done that to some extent."

Amit Shah laughs at the suggestion that casinos are a den of vice or that they promote immorality in society.

View from the floating casino
The floating casinos are a big attraction for foreign visitors

"I have come here with my family," he says pointing out his wife and other relatives in Casino Goa, "and I feel comfortable coming here with my family. Gambling is a stress buster for me."

Mr Shah, a self-proclaimed staunch Hindu, says gambling is an integral part of the ancient Indian culture.

"In the Hindu mythologies, gambling has been mentioned since the time of the Mahabharata. Kings and queens have always indulged in gambling. The only thing is if you come to a casino you should know where to draw the line."

From a hippy capital of the world to the casino capital of India, Goa seems to have gone for an image make-over.

The authorities have been trying hard to make this tiny former Portuguese colony into a high-end tourism destination.

The push to bring in tourists with deep pockets has seen the state organising carnivals and film festivals.

Ongoing controversy

Father Loila Pereira doesn't want the casino culture to filter through to ordinary Goans.

"If you are a foreigner and come to a casino in Goa I have no problem with that. But what we don't want is the promotion and proliferation of casinos in Goa among Goans."

Indeed, most of the visitors come from outside Goa.

I met three men from the northern Indian city of Lucknow visiting the casino for the first time.

Gambling chips on Macau gaming table
Gambling in Goa faces an uncertain future

One of them, SK Verma, says: "It's a very good experience to be in a casino for the first time. If coming to a casino is bad then it's as bad as going to a disco or a bar."

Mr Parikkar says if his party comes to power in the May assembly elections the policy would be reviewed.

"I don't like any new casinos in Goa," he said.

Whatever, the arguments, everyone agrees that casinos are good money earners. But in the light of the controversy, no one is willing to bet on the expansion of the casino culture in Goa.

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