Sri Lanka Casinos Cause Controversy as Area Draws More Gamblers

Posted on: July 21, 2013, 05:34h. 

Last updated on: July 20, 2013, 01:36h.

Sri Lanka is hoping that the addition of larger casinos to their burgeoning gambling industry could help make them a new hot spot for gamblers in the region. However, there’s plenty of opposition to the plan – and not just from religious leaders who oppose gambling on moral grounds.

Sri Lanka has long had small gambling venues that used loopholes in the legal code to justify their existence. But the promise of major casino gambling only developed in 2010, when the country legalized casino gambling in Colombo, the country’s largest city.

Two Major Casinos

In recent weeks, the government has granted approval for two major casino projects in the city. First, Australian casino tycoon James Packer was given permission to build a $350 million lakeside complex in Colombo. Then, the John Keells group – which owns hotels and other properties in Sri Lanka – was approved for an $850 million “mixed development” project that would include a casino as part of an entertainment center.

“Big names coming to Sri Lanka for mixed developments is a huge boost to the [tourism] industry,” said Sri Lanka Institute of Tourism and Hotel Management chairman Chandra Mohotti.

Both companies are looking to take advantage of growth in the local economy as well as an increased interest in tourism to Sri Lanka to make their casino projects a success. But while the casino developers are excited about the projects, some people in Sri Lanka are skeptical.

Some of the opposition may seem rather obvious in nature: the country’s influential Buddhist monks are generally opposed to gambling. However, they have mostly taken a “wait and see” approach to how the government will treat the industry.

“We oppose gambling, but it is not practical to eradicate it completely,” said monk and lawmaker Athuraliye Rathana. “The government must enforce the Gambling Act and limit casinos to designated areas rather than give them a free run.”

Moral concerns may help explain why the new casinos will only be open to foreigners, and why the government has spent years crafting casino regulations.

Tax Breaks

While the moral opposition to casinos may have softened, others are more concerned about the deals that the firms developing these properties are receiving. Both groups building the casinos will be given 10-year tax holidays – a move some believe defeats the purpose of bringing them to Sri Lanka.

“What we are saying is that if the country is to benefit, they must be taxed and regulated,” said lawmaker Harsha de Silva. “We will not jump up and down saying we opposed casinos.”