Nepal used to be the only place between Monaco and Macau where you could gamble legally. With a huge nation of gamblers next door, Nepal's casinos cashed in on the bonanza for decades, propping up the kingdom's tourism industry through good times and bad.
It all started with Casino Nepal at Hotel Soaltee (previously Hotel Oberoi ). It was all nicely tied in for the Indian package gambler: air fare, three days four nights and free coupons thrown in to get 'em hooked. And, boy, did they get hooked.
Nepal Recreation Centre now manages the six casinos that have mushroomed in various five-star hotels in Kathmandu. Though it was targeted at tourists, Nepalis were allowed to gamble in casinos before government policy discouraged them with Rs 50 charge on entrance. In 1977, the Gambling Act of the land granted licence and Nepalis were banned altogether from going into casinos. The dens now bank on tourists but most establishments give those entering the benefit of doubt.
This Dasain wasn't buzzing for Kathmandu's casinos. They do not have much to look forward to in Tihar either as the number of tourists dwindle. International media coverage of the blockade and the 1 September riots have reduced the number of tourists this season, especially from India.
"A majority of our clients are from India," says BK Shakya, general manager of Nepal Recreation Centres. "This Diwali, it looks like they are staying home." But there are the die-hards who come to Kathmandu regularly. "I come to Nepal on business every few months," says Ayush Agrawal, a trader. "I like the casinos here not just for gambling but for all the other facilities they offer."
Nepal Tourism Board (NTB) is hoping that recent promos and road shows in India will bring in first-time Indian tourists to the casinos, especially from southern India. Casinos contribute two percent of their earnings (it amounted to Rs 1.7 million last year) to the Tourist Service Fees which NTB ploughs into promotional efforts.
Casino clients are now diversifying and come not just from India but also from China, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Sri Lanka. Says NTB's Tek Bahadur Dangi: "Casinos provide attractive packages for tourists and can encourage visitors to increase their length of stay in Nepal."
The history of the word 'casino' comes from the Italian word for a cottage: small summer homes where people gathered to listen to music, and eventually gamble. The first time it was recorded in the English language was in 1851, which is probably when English tourists in Tuscany discovered the salacious pleasures of games of chance.
Although Nepalis are not allowed in Kathmandu's casinos. "I like coming here," a Nepali who didn't want his name mentioned, told us. "It's not just the gambling, there is music, food and drink. I get to sing on stage sometimes if I ask. It's not like you can win gambling, it's more relaxing to just sit and watch."
The gaming industry has always had an uphill struggle to be accepted in society, although gambling is traditional in Nepal, especially during Tihar. "We are a taboo," admits Kishor Silwal, managing director of Casino Rad. "But we are a big draw for tourism and prop up the economy."
The pull factor is that casinos offer round-the-clock free food and drinks for players with special facilities thrown in. The push factor is that when gambling becomes a compulsive habit, it ruins lives.
Set up at the Soaltee, Casino Nepal is the country's oldest casino and was launched in 1968. In 1976, American Richard Doyle Tuttle entered the scene and began managing the casino. He now chairs the Nepal Recreation Centres which runs other gaming establishments in town. With its well-polished ambience, Casino Nepal has repeat patrons and frequent-gamblers. Children can be parked at a nearby video arcade.
In 1992, Casino Anna opened and was as BK Shakya puts it "a product of the restoration of democracy". Located at Hotel de la Annapurna in the centre of town, it drew huge crowds. The casino is built on three floors and the ground floor, in an attempt to catch them young, is targeted at children with slot machines. First floor is for serious gamblers.
When the government granted licence for three more casinos in 1992, Everest Hotel opened (what else: Casino Everest). The establishment is known for its wide range of entertainment events with live music 24 hours. Free meals and drinks attract even more people and weekly tournaments have brought a bonanza of repeat customers.
1992 also saw the opening of Casino Royale at Hotel Yak & Yeti in the renovated wing of the Lal Darbar. The casinos even keeps two astrologers on standby in case any of the customers want to consult the stars about their chances for that particular night. There is also an exclusive beauty salon for VIP guests.
Casino Rad opened in Hotel Radisson last July and hasn't looked back since. Besides a loyal clientele of Indian gamblers, it has begun to pull in quite a few Malaysians who are tired of the Genting Highlands, as well as Thais. Like the other casinos, it offers casino packages to guests.
The youngest casino, it opened last December and is located at the Hyatt Regency. It has an exclusive VIP subdivision where the minimum bet starts at pretty high stakes. It features Caribbean stud poker, half roulette and more.