Saturday, August 13, 2022

Sikkim’s new airport to drive casino traffic

After waiting for almost a decade, Sikkim, nestled in the mountainous far north of India, finally got an airport in October, which is likely to provide a boost to gambling operators in the remote state.

Sikkim is the most liberal state in India when it comes to gambling, allowing both casinos and online betting. However, its remote location has hampered growth and casino operators there have long been demanding an airport. It was the only state in the country without one.

The airport at Pakyong – 33 kms from the state capital of Gangtok – was inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi whose government has been pushing for the construction of Greenfield airports all over the country, especially in smaller towns, or near non-metropolitan cities. Construction on the facility has taken almost a decade, originally beginning in 2009.

At 4500 feet above sea level, its scenic beauty has been widely shared on social media providing a marketing boost for the area.

Flights started from October 4. According to a Times of India report, SpiceJet, a leading air carrier was to run daily flights from Delhi, Calcutta and Guwahati. Flights to Bhutan are also in the pipeline.

Previously, the quickest way to reach Gangtok was a five-hour, uphill drive from Bagdogra, which was the closest airport. The journey was a deterrent to both gamblers and tourists alike in a state, which was heavily dependent on tourism for revenue.

Travel operators are already reporting increased interest by tourists following the launch of the airport. According to Sikkim Tourism, last year the state attracted 1.37 million tourists, up from 740,763 the prior year.

Albert Climent, an expert on gaming and gambling based out of Gangtok, agreed that the airport would “definitely be helpful” in boosting footfall. Climent, who is founder of BlueSea Consulting, noted that the state has been getting enough people interested in visiting its casinos and online gaming parlours, keeping the business healthy, despite the difficult access.

Golden Gaming is the main operator in Sikkim, with casinos as well as gaming kiosks and a large gaming centre in the middle of the city. Its senior official in-charge operations, Ratul Sethi, told AGB that they welcomed the airport, but were not yet seeing a major boost to business as at present only one flight is operating daily to Calcutta.

“We have heard from the authorities that weather conditions (due to its height) are preventing the airport from getting permissions to allow more flights to land. Once the flight from Guwahati starts, we expect more footfalls.”

Deltin, India’s largest gaming company also owns a casino in Sikkim. They have also welcomed the opening of the airport. “The airport will be a major boost for tourism, positively influencing the gaming industry,” the company said in a statement.

The three casinos currently operational in the state bring the government revenue of about three million dollars every month, according to estimates by the local media.

Commenting on the development, an owner of a gaming house in Calcutta where Poker is legally allowed, said that while Sikkim was “alright” to play at, the facilities “are better in Goa” and as a result professional or serious players would prefer the latter, regardless of the airport.

Calcutta has had an active poker scene lately after a favourable verdict by the High Court in 2015. He added that the airport would be more useful for tourists and gamblers from elsewhere in the country, as they could now use Calcutta as a transit point to reach Sikkim more easily. “Calcutta’s tourists visited Sikkim even before the airport came up,” he pointed out.

Protests were reported earlier this year against the gambling industry in Sikkim, in particular against the online gaming kiosks. Critics alleged they were being frequented by poor men who were getting addicted and were causing problems at home. This forced the hand of the government, which has now banned entry of locals into the gaming kiosks.

Climent said that the ban could have been prompted by upcoming elections. “Such things always happen in the election year and not much should be read into it,” he told AGB.

Sikkim will go for state elections in 2019, along with general elections in the country. While Sethi agreed that elections do cause protests to spike, he also admitted that the move to ban the locals had affected business. The company has taken it in its stride. “We have to adhere by the policies of the government,” he told AGB.

Golden Gaming has also been in talks to acquire to acquire a casino in Nepal, which was supposed to be finalised earlier this year. Sethi confirmed that talks were still on but did not disclose more details.


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