Bets are on

Casinos are big business in the Caribbean, and only getting bigger

Are you feeling lucky? Photograph by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

With the benefit of some stunning locations, it’s clear the Caribbean can offer those keen on a wager something different for their gaming dollar. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the smallest island in the world to be governed by two nations: Sint Maarten or St Martin, depending on where you’re standing.

For over 350 years, this tiny landmass in the Leeward Islands, just 37 square miles, has been shared by the Dutch and the French. The casinos are all on the Dutch side, Sint Maarten, clustered around the airport on Simpson Bay Lagoon or in Philipsburg. Many are attached to resort hotels.

Perhaps the best known are the Princess Casino and Casino Royale. At over 26,000 square feet, the Princess Casino, at Port De Plaisance, is one of the largest casinos in the Caribbean, and is decorated in Las Vegas style with a European touch. A thirty-foot-tall bronze sculpture and waterfalls mark the entrance, and the four-story-high central casino features an enormous ten-thousand-piece crystal chandelier. With private “high-roller” rooms, a gourmet restaurant with live floor shows, and nightly music for dancing, this is definitely somewhere you can play at being James Bond for a night.

“We have everything here, and can rival absolutely anywhere else in the world,” says Joan Peterson, marketing manager at the Princess. “We have glitz, glamour, entertainment, dancers, music, restaurants, catwalk models, fashion shows. You get more when you come here. The whole atmosphere is special — it is elegant, romantic, and stylish.

“We have been open for fifteen years, and we’re the biggest and the best on the island — there’s no question,” adds the ebullient Peterson.

Both the Princess and Casino Royale are renowned for their spectacular live shows. Both also offer VIP services, picking up and returning clients to their hotels; the Princess offers to do this in a Bentley.

The casino trade in Sint Maarten is heavily dependent on tourists. A spokeswoman for the Royale says that eighty per cent of their business comes from overseas visitors. Joan Peterson at the Princess says their experience is similar, and that a large number of their customers are Americans from New York, New Jersey, and California.

The Royale has recently looked to attract even more attention from abroad by staging a number of international poker tournaments. The International Poker Federation recognised the casino, linked to the Sonesta Maho Beach Resort, back in 2004 with the first Sint Maarten Open, an event that drew players from across the globe.

Marca Chemont, marketing assistant at the Sint Maarten Tourist Office, noted the importance of holidaymakers from North America. “We get a lot of visitors to the island from the USA and Canada, and the tourist board has offices both in New York and Toronto to cater for these,” she says.

However, so large is the casino trade becoming in Sint Maarten that the government was recently forced to take action. With three casinos springing up since 1999, bringing the total to twelve, the authorities decided to say “enough is enough” before things got too overcrowded. They have now imposed a moratorium on new establishments.

 

Trinidad and Tobago, the richest and most southerly of the Caribbean island nations, has a different flavour to its casino scene. Marketing managers at two of Trinidad’s top casinos say the burgeoning gas and oil industry means more locals frequent the gaming establishments than is the case in other countries. They add that the emphasis of the night is different as well: it’s more focussed on entertainment than on groups of high-rollers pushing teetering stacks of chips out onto vividly coloured baize.

That’s not to say you can’t bet big if you want to, but tales of men made or broken in a night are not the image the country’s gaming industry is keen to promote. Casinos like the Island Club and Ma Pau now cater as much for those looking for a fun night out as for the serious gambler. Both present live shows every night of the week, running alongside the gaming tables and machines. There’s live local music, comedy and talent shows, as well as the ubiquitous karaoke nights.

“We’re about entertainment as much as anything else. We have live entertainment every night of the week,” says Charles Sookhan, group marketing manager of the Island Cub Casino.

“What I would say to people is to come in and enjoy the entertainment, have a relax and a drink, and then they can try the casino if they like. The entertainment is separate. What we want to put across is that this is just another form of entertainment, like anything else, like going to the movies or to a club, for instance. It’s about having a good night out.”

Dennis Rose, marketing manager at Ma Pau, agrees. “If we do have bywords, they are enjoyment and responsibility. We want people to enjoy themselves, but in an affordable way. People can over-indulge in any avenue of life, but we encourage people to only spend what they can afford and just enjoy the evening. We promote sensible gambling.”

Dennis explains the difference in the T&T casino scene. “We get a mix of people in, but it’s probably about a seventy-thirty split, locals to tourists. It’s mostly a thirty-plus crowd as well — more mature.

“The Caribbean gambler is a bit different — a little bit more educated, and likes the table games where there is more skill involved. In Las Vegas, you get a lot more holiday-makers who are prepared to blow a few dollars on a weekend. The customers here are different in that regard.

“Rum 32 is very popular, and is a game indicative of the Caribbean gambler, with that added skill factor and a bit more decision-making.”

Charles Sookhan sees a similar trend. “The market is different here to elsewhere, like the US, for example. We are trying to tailor ourselves more to our culture. Some of the local games are the most popular, and we’re trying to introduce a little Caribbean flavour to the other games.”

Both clubs have a large number of staff on hand to explain game rules to any nervous newcomers. Ma Pau includes free training tables in this service, where staff members take the customer through practice sessions of any game they are interested in. “It takes that intimidation factor away from when you first go to a table,” says Dennis Rose.

While not aiming for the same atmosphere or scale as the Las Vegas casinos, Dennis adds that they are just as well equipped in Trinidad. “We are comparable with respect to machines and games with all other casinos around the world.”