On a ferry, past 10pm, the mood is sombre, almost ominous, as the vehicle skims towards one of the many ships anchored on the Mandovi river, off the port of Panjim. There is enough light on the bay, from brightly lit ships, glossy billboards, reflections off the river surface that’s kinetic in the monsoon. But the mood inside is darker than you would imagine for a bunch of people off to spend money, play games and enjoy a pre-paid buffet.
“I often make a trip to one of these,” says a young- to middle-aged man in a checked shirt, part of a group of others of a similar age, who does not want to disclose his name. “My family knows, but I would rather not have to answer too many questions at home.”
The Belgaum resident is one of thousands of tourists who gravitate towards one of Goa’s six off-shore casinos that are open 24x7, offer a bundle of entertainment and employment, spur tourism in the state and often invite scorn from the residents.
The post-pandemic world for casinos is just limping back to a semblance of normalcy, after most of them were shut down from March to November 2020 and then again from the end of April to mid-September 2021—over 12 months of inactivity in a business that otherwise has almost no days off.
“One challenge was to retain staff,” says Shrinivas Nayak, a director of the Majestic Pride Group that has an off-shore casino. “We (casinos) are the last priority because we come under leisure (business). We were the last to start our business. The unfortunate thing is while the revenue stopped, the expenses were on.”
Numbers are difficult to get, since most casinos are guarded about talking figures—most are guarded about talking at all. But the only listed company engaged in the casino gaming industry in India, Delta Corp, saw its net sales decline from nearly Rs 800 crore in 2018-19 to Rs418 crore in 2020-21. Its operating profit in this period went down from Rs 320 crore to just under Rs 22 crore, marking out the scars the pandemic left on the industry. The company has a few off-shore casinos in Goa, including Deltin Royale, Deltin Jaqk and Deltin Caravela, also known as King Casino.
However, things are looking up for Delta in this financial year. In the April-June quarter, its net sales rose 15 percent and operating profit by 27 percent, driven by increasing tourists frequenting casinos and improving room occupancy.
Riding on the bounce back in the overall stock market, the Delta Corp scrip has gained almost 15 percent in the past month. These numbers have prompted the company to bankroll a new ship that has a similar capacity to its three existing casinos in Goa and indicate that the gaming industry could be a winning bet for a long-term investor.
Tejwant Singh, who performs a myriad roles for Casino Pride, including handling their marketing, entertainment and picking up the phone listed on their website, tells a story he heard from one of their first-time visitors this year: “He said my father earned so much, kept saving, used to stop us from spending and then died of Covid last year. He earned his whole life but did not enjoy it, he never travelled. What did he achieve? He went without enjoying the one life he had.”
“There are people who say let’s enjoy now, who knows what will happen tomorrow?” Singh adds.
He narrates this incident as a means of explaining that while footfalls may not be as high as pre-Covid days, visitors are spending more. “The risk appetite has increased. People are afraid if there is another lockdown…” he trails off, his thick kada banging off the table every time he moves his hands at his Porvorim office.
On a Friday night, when the rain abates for a bit, the road leading into Panjim with the casino jetties on the side bustles with Toyota Qualis-loads of beady-eyed men. Couples argue on rented scooters off the sidewalks, the mehendi and bangles a dead giveaway of their recently-changed marital status and how gambling may have stuck the first salvo in post-honeymoon discord. Groups of young families drag along their toddlers and nannies, a mix of sleep and excitement that forms imperceptible expressions on their faces. Women on heels totter precariously while crossing the sticky road as the local municipality decides to retar it right at that moment. Touts hang around, distributing coupons and encouragement.
The pandemic has inspired casinos to innovate and pivot towards the modern times. Social media and Instagram play a significant role in communication now. Big hoardings continue to be plastered in strategic places, like on the way to the city from the airport, but they are seen as limited in value, 4-5 seconds of blurred visuals.
Singh speaks of having to innovate daily, explaining that “in a democratic country what people want, they can have it”. To target today’s millennial crowd is a task, says the recent immigrant from Ludhiana who claims to be in his mid-20s. “We have to keep our social media updated, Google page has to be monitored, Instagram needs instant replies. Till 3-4 years ago, we had not paid any attention to these,” says Singh, who started working with Casino Pride during the first lockdown.
“We are targeting this part of society, youngsters, people of my age 23-25. Unmarried, young. Because my college friends, school friends—all connections are through social media.”
Inside the dragon
From a distance, Casino Pride looks like it’s a scene from Ozark, an OTT show in which a dysfunctional family runs a casino in Missouri, USA. The 20-odd people from the ferry scramble out on to the ground floor of Casino Pride, making it look as packed as a Mumbai local train station for a few minutes before they scatter to other levels of the multi-storied den.
Games like Roulette, Black Jack, Baccarat, Flush, Casino War battle with newer ones like Dragon Tiger, Double Dice and are accompanied by more indigenous sounding Amar Akbar Anthony, Chhote Miyan Bade Miyan and Andar Bahar. The last named, according to Singh, is most popular among men from Karnataka, a simple card game of chance that requires little strategising.
“If you have 2,000 people on board, 800 would be playing Andar Bahar,” he says.
Kannada and Telugu are the most frequently heard languages in the casino, indicative of the audience’s places of origin. There are games rooms, a buffet spread on the second floor in front of a live dance performance to a Kannada or a Telugu song. In a children’s room further ahead, behind the dance stage, a few adults have the onerous task of entertaining children past 11 in the night.
At the Deltin Royale, on a week night, the atmosphere is more sedate. The crowd is more gentrified, sparser, seemingly less stressed. There are enough tables for everyone, more space to move around, fewer competitors for the wins. A bunch of nine-ten middle-aged women, dressed for an evening out, park themselves on a Black Jack table while one of them paces about arguing on the phone with a seemingly errant child.
Casino managers says newcomers—and there are plenty of those—ask fairly cliched questions. Can I walk in shorts and slippers (mostly no)? Do you accept cash (yes, and credit card, GPay, etc.)? Is it safe? How would I get to the ship and will it cruise (no)? Typical newbies spend a few hours in the evenings on their maiden casino visit, seasoned card players could spend days inside without realising it.
Most casino virgins are not interested in spending more than a few thousands, believe that only the house wins in the end and expect to find men in tuxedoes nursing shaken martinis. “They have this in their minds that in a casino, it’s all fixed. How it’s shown in the movies, that we are all in this together. But ask me how many people win,” adds Singh, laughing.
On the other side
For a long time now, local citizens and non-governmental organisations have been seeking to move the casinos out of their current Mandovi location. Frequently enough, there are issues of licencing that come up—whether they would be renewed or not. The Central government recently deferred a proposal to levy 28 percent GST on casinos while the state government intends to notify new regulations for casino operators, including empowering a gaming commissioner.
“With respect to moving out of Mandovi,” says Nayak, “the matter has been on for 16 years. The myth is that we can’t move. But what is important is people’s safety, ease of business, access to facilities. These are challenges for any government.”
“As of now, there is no resentment, no move. Those things have died down. I have been hearing that the casino industry is finished and I have been in this business over 25 years. They have not found anything negative in all the time they were speculating,” Nayak says.
The Goa Gambling Act, for instance, makes it an offence for locals to go to casinos—the High Court last year dismissed a petition challenging the act. How this is imposed is unclear. This makes the high-stakes outing a preserve of the tourist.
Then there are other eclectic tales of notoriety. For example, a 25-year-old from Udipi in June hatched an elaborate plan of staging his own kidnapping, but made the elementary mistake of calling home from his traceable mobile phone. He was found in a Goa casino with friends.
While casinos earn the state revenue, feed its tourism industry, fill its hotels, there is an understandable love-hate relationship with the gaming business. The Indian Express quoted sources in putting the state government’s average annual earning in licence fees from casinos to more than Rs 320 crore besides the approximately Rs 800-1,000 crore in taxes it earns for allied activities such as restaurants, hotels, and tourist vehicles, among others.
Nayak says this has to be looked at in perspective, based on the size of the state and its population. “Per capita, this is the highest revenue earner. Goa, with a population of 15 lakh, is not a consumer state. There is not much GST for the state of Goa, except from tourism, followed by distributorship of vehicles. Considering that, this is integral for revenue.”
Delta Corp. alone employs about 2,500 people in the business in Goa, expected to triple once their 100-acre entertainment and casino project in Pernem gets going. The industry is said to employ about 14,000 people in all.
Entry fee for the casinos range from Rs 1,000, which includes the buffet, to over Rs 5,000. Some have an ATM near the booking counter to ensure that spenders are not inconvenienced.
One for the future
With just six offshore casinos (10 onshore), there is not much competition between the players. Singh breaks it down to Casino Pride catering to the masses while Big Daddy serves millennials in search of a flamboyant experience, leaving Royale for the high rollers. “We get people in Hawaii chappal and branded clothes—we cater to all,” he says with a grin.
Singh claims that 1,500-2,000 people walk in on a weekday, which increases to about 2,500 on weekends. The crowd peaks post 7pm till after midnight, when they leave, spent or satiated.
By all accounts, this monsoon has been good for the business, unlike others when the tourism industry slows down in Goa. “There was this revenge tourism,” Nayak says. “People were fed up sitting, working from home, confined to small space, especially families. We got good revenue, but it didn’t compensate for the lost 12 months.”
“All tourism destinations, especially in Goa, saw a surge in number of visiting tourists due to the pent-up demand and declining Covid cases, which has got the mojo back to the sector,” says Deltin’s president of operations, Anil Malani, over email. “In the post-pandemic scenario, we have been cautiously optimistic that this momentum would sustain in the future as well and are happy to state that our operations are now back to pre-pandemic levels.”
Nayak says that there has not been a single year without challenges. “You always feel that this is the last year or month. Fortunately, we have successfully resolved issues that crop up. We stay afloat and grow steadily and hope the trend continues.”
Big Daddy’s head of sales and marketing, Clint Fernandes, adds that there are weather challenges, as theirs is an off-shore business.
It’s past midnight and the ride back to the port from the casino, carrying fewer people and more fatigue, lacks the slight anticipation of the first journey. The lights still glisten in the distance, the dock still has a smattering of hopeful people and the cabbies on the street perk up a bit. For many people hanging around, it’s a daily business, for some, there would be a return, for a few it was a revelation.“We are well-poised,” adds Malani. “I don’t see any other challenge. I think we are in a sweet spot.”