The palm-fringed beaches of Goa attract millions of tourists lured by the white sands, dreamy blue water and trance parties held alongside the pounding surf.
But the idyllic coastline of Goa is poised to get a controversial new addition, a flotilla of casinos that will operate offshore to get around federal laws restricting such enterprises on land. Reports suggest that up to 11 ships could be operating along the coast by the end of the year.
The plans, by international operators, have already run into intense opposition, with campaigners claiming the casinos will not only cause environmental damage but have a detrimental social impact by targeting not only tourists but local people.
At the forefront of the opposition has been the Catholic Church, which has a long history in Goa and remains a powerful influence in the former Portuguese colony. Fr Maverick Fernandes, secretary of the Council for Social Justice and Peace in the Archdiocese of Goa and Daman, said campaigners were hoping the state government would change its position and block the proposals. He warned that activists would launch state-wide protests if it did not.
„We are fighting on two issues,“ he said. „There is the dredging of the river [in one area where a floating casino is planned] which will destroy the traditional fishing industry; it’s going to destroy the ecological balance and the spawning grounds.“
He added: „The second aspect is the social damage. There are many youths and people here who have worked abroad; people will be spending their money on the casinos rather than on their families. We are hoping the government will heed to the demands of the people immediately.“
So far, opposition to the proposals has been most active in the communities along the Sal river where the Leela Group of hotels and resorts plans a floating casino, close to the town of Cavelossim.
The company has started dredging the river bed to allow its ship to enter. Villagers have formed the Save River Sal Front to prevent measures they say will destroy livelihoods.
There is already one floating casino in the area, the MV Caravela, but a report in The Indian Express newspaper claimed there could be floating casinos along the entirety of Goa’s coast when tourism picks up after the monsoon season.
Among those planning to establish an operation there is R D Tuttle, an American citizen known as the „Casino King of Nepal“ after he pioneered a booming gambling industry in Kathmandu. Mr Tuttle has a vessel fitted with 50 gaming tables which will sail from the US to Goa.
Another operator planning a floating casino in Goa within months is Premier Leisure, an Indian company that runs the Winners casino in the Goa Marriott hotel in Panaji. In 1993, legislation was passed that allowed casinos to operate inside five-star hotels.
The manager, John Snowball, yesterday confirmed the company’s plans to operate a casino on the Mondovi river but claimed opposition to the floating establishments was largely confined to the Sal river area and was a „particularly local situation“.
He added: „There is always some opposition to casinos wherever they open anywhere in the world. But they have operated [in Goa] since 1993 and this is not a new issue.“
Reports suggest the state politicians, with their eyes on foreign tourists and the success of locations such as Nepal, are keen to expand the number of casino operations this year.