By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Bahamas could enjoy “anywhere from a 25-30 per cent increase” in stopover visitors by passing the casino gaming reforms currently before Parliament, and create more than 20,000 new jobs.
Robert Sands, Baha Mar’s senior vice-president of governmental and external affairs, said the Bahamian casino industry was still projecting that the modernisation ushered in by the reforms would triple its top-line revenues.
With the “overwhelming majority” of recommendations made by the casino/hotel industry seemingly incorporated into the Gaming Bill 2013, Mr Sands said it was critical that the proposed legislation not be delayed any longer.
Referring to the Government’s decision to exclude from the latest Bill provisions that would have allowed permanent residents, work permit holders and other spousal-related permit holders to gamble in Bahamian casinos, Mr Sands said there would likely be opportunities to “reinstate” this in the future.
Arguing that focus needed to be placed on the total reform package,Mr Sands said industry forecasts suggested that the increased competitiveness of Bahamas-based casinos could stimulate a stopover visitor increase of “anywhere from 25-30 per cent”.
“A 30 per cent increase in tourists coming into the country can really create in excess of 20,000 new jobs,” he told Tribune Business.
The Gaming Bill 2013, and associated regulations, will allow Bahamas-based casinos - Atlantis and Baha Mar, plus those at the Grand Lucayan and Bimini Bay resorts - to offer on-property sports betting, in-play wagering, proxy wagering and online gaming via cell phones and computers. There will also be incentives for ‘junket’ group visits.
Some 17 proposed reforms were submitted to the Government by industry, and Mr Sands said that while the sector was still reviewing how many were included in the Bill tabled in Parliament, “the overwhelming majority” had been incorporated.
The Government’s decision not to include provisions permitting permanent residents and other permit holders to gamble in Bahamian casinos is likely to have been made on political grounds.
With feelings in some quarters still raw from the ‘web shop’ gaming ‘No’ vote earlier this year, including such a provision would have fuelled concerns that Bahamians were once again being discriminated against, and reduced to the status of ‘second class citizens’ in their own country.
In response, Mr Sands said the casino industry preferred the Government get the Bill to Parliament and passed into law, rather than have it held up by one single issue.
“We feel the Government is doing the right thing in not letting these elements hold up the Bill,” he added in relation to the permit holder issue.
“We believe there will be opportunities at a later date for them to be reinstated to the Bill. What is so important at this point in time is the Bill is before Parliament.
“For the first time in a long time, there will be a level playing field with respect to other world class destinations, and it will put the Bahamas in a competitive position going forward.”
Just how far the Bahamas has fallen when it comes to casino gaming competitiveness was illustrated by a recent presentation given by Uri Clinton, Baha Mar’s senior vice-president and general counsel.
Speaking at a College of the Bahamas (COB) tourism conference, Mr Clinton revealed data showing that total Bahamian casino gaming gross revenues had fallen by more than one-third over the five years between 2007 and 2011, dropping from close to $220 million to around $145 million - a 34 per cent decline.
The decline in stopover visitors over that 2007-2011 period was nowhere near as sharp, Mr Clinton showed, producing comparisons between the Bahamas and rival gaming meccas to prove his point.
Comparing this nation to Singapore, Macau, Atlantic City, Las Vegas and Biloxi (Mississippi), Mr Clinton’s presentation showed the Bahamas’ generated the lowest revenue per casino of all in 2011 - just $48.691 million.
This figure was based on three operating casinos and total revenues of $146.073 million, yet Singapore’s two casinos were generating $2.222 billion per establishment that same year.
By the same yardstick, Macau’s 33 casinos were earning $1.076 billion in gross revenues per facility. And the figures for Atlantic City and Las Vegas were $296.5 million and $241 million respectively, with Biloxi standing at just shy of $100 million in gross revenues per casino.
But, pointing out that the reform package had to be viewed “in totality”, Mr Sands said yesterday: “One cannot underestimate how modernisation of these gaming regulations will expand and support tourism in the Bahamas.”
The Bill, he added, would provide the platform for Bahamian casinos to offer the latest games and technologies.
Noting that the Lotteries and Gaming Act had not been amended for 44 years since being enacted in 1969, Mr Sands told Tribune Business: “We are, in fact, overdue.
“The Bahamas’ GGR (gross gaming revenues) have really fallen to a low level over many year, despite a gradual upswing in hotel visitors and room rates.
“What this will now do is revive the opportunity for the Bahamas to regain its market share and share of GGR going forward. This will, in fact, put the Bahamas on the threshold of not only regaining but increasing its GGR almost three-fold.”
He added: “I think we are extremely encouraged by what this Bill will mean for gaming in the Bahamas, and the playing field is much more favourable for Bahamas-based casinos.
“It’s going to drive gaming revenues, increase the tax base and job growth for Bahamians. The mere fact that we’re opening new rooms and driving occupancies, that in itself, quite frankly, will be a fantastic impact on the economy.”
While focusing on competitiveness and meeting gaming/traveller demands, Mr Sands pledged that the Bahamas would still “carefully regulate” what he described as some of the “fastest-growing areas of gaming”.
He added that the Bill also incorporated ‘responsible gaming’ as a “big element”, with a focus on employee training.