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The case for casinos

In addressing members of the Montego Bay business community, Tourism Minister Edmund Bartlett outlined a raft of plans to get tourists to spend more money in our country.

The minister is reported to have announced „diversification of the shore offerings to include attractions like Atlantis, the Caribbean’s largest casino and maritime habitat in the Bahamas.“

If the reporting is accurate, then it seems that the minister is heading in the right direction. A direction which I hope includes the formal introduction of casino gambling as one of the recreational options for visitors.

Dire predictions

For years, vocal members of the religious community in Jamaica have shot down the idea of casino gambling with dire predictions about casino gaming’s effects on society. It seems that in the hierarchy of sins, the church sees casino gambling as a big sin, and horse racing, the lotto and slot machines as little sins which can be tolerated.

Crime is always cited as one of the by-products of casino gambling. But Caribbean neighbours like the Bahamas, Antigua, St. Kitts/Nevis, Turks and Caicos Islands, where casinos have existed for some time, all have lower crime rates than Jamaica.

Casinos are not magnets for marauding gunmen and organised criminal gangs. Costa Rica, con-sidered one of the safest countries in the world, boasts 29 gaming facilities.

Besides, I dare say Jamaica’s moral quotient is not any higher than any of our neighbours.

Economic benefits

Economically, these countries are doing better than Jamaica, if one uses the value of their currency as a yardstick. The Bahamas has no other industry than tourism, and its stable dollar has remained on par with the American dollar.

I have not seen any empirical data which confirm that casino gaming drives up murders, robberies and the types of criminal activity that we face every day. On the contrary, I have seen data indicating that casino investments have guaranteed billions of dollars in economic activity as well as significant local employment.

Successive governments have cowered in the face of the Church’s objections. The result is that casinos have been introduced through the back door with the proliferation of slot machines from Negril to Morant Point. Maybe this is why the Worldwide Casino, Horse Tracks and Other Gaming directory lists Jamaica as having 14 such facilities.

The Government, however, is not reaping the requisite revenues. The answer is to introduce full-fledged casinos with table games and roulette wheels (maybe they are already here) and collect significant taxes from the operators. If the Bruce Golding Government embraces the idea of casinos it has to be bold in presenting the pros and cons of the decision to the public. It has to be prepared to fend off the anti-casino lobby which is often guided by emotion rather than fact.

Social needs

This government, which appears to have a socialist bent, can win its case by pointing to the acute social needs in health, education, which have to be satisfied somehow.

In New Jersey, for example, casino revenue is earmarked for the elderly and disabled. Would the church object to casino revenues being used to transform the miserable existence of the nation’s destitute into a more dignified way of life? And who would object to casino revenues being used to expand our overcrowded prisons?

We have ruminated for too long on this casino question. The debate is not going away and we need to make a decision, especially in the current climate where money is scarce and countries have to find creative ways of reducing budget deficits.

Jamaica would not be inventing the wheel by giving the nod to full-fledged casino gaming, there already exists regulatory and enforcement templates right in our backyard.