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Belize takes gamble with first casino
The Miami Herald / March 20, 2000

By Larry Luxner

BELIZE CITY, Belize -- Casino gambling has finally arrived in Belize, a sparsely populated Central American nation that has great scuba diving, rainforests and Mayan ruins -- but very little nightlife.

The 134-room Princess Hotel, inaugurated Jan. 22 in Belize City, is the country's largest hotel and the only one with legalized gambling.

During its first week of business, the hotel's flashy new casino attracted thousands of well-dressed Belizeans, who came not only to play the slot machines but also to see the live show: six also to enjoy a Brazilian-style cabaret performance by six half-naked dancing girls imported from Russia.

To get in, visitors must be card-carrying members, though membership is free. Martin Conway, the new hotel's British-born general manager, says this is an effective way of keeping out the riff-raff.

"The people who come here are actually very nice," Conway said. "We're attracting the middle and upper classes. We don't get any garbage."

Conway, who ran the Princess Hotel in St. Maarten before being transferred to Belize a few months ago, concedes that the church in this overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country mounted "very strong opposition" to legalized gambling in Belize.

"They see casinos as evil, because everybody comes in with their last dollar," he said. "It's true there's a lot of poverty here. So we had to work out a system of street screening in order to keep out people who don't have two coins in their pocket. We want them to be well-dressed. Everywhere else in the Caribbean, the doors are open. Here, we have a controlled system."

James S. Murphy, Belize's ambassador to the United States, says his government isn't worried about the negative effects of gambling because the new casino is geared more towards foreigners than Belizeans -- though so far, most of the patrons appear to be locals.

"The legislation was enacted to make the tourism industry more competitive," he said. "We have never had a casino in the entire country. Apparently, the tourism people felt they were thereby disadvantaged relative to the rest of the region."

The Princess Hotel, formerly a Ramada, was purchased by Turkish businessman Sudi Ozkan specifically so a casino could be established.

Ozkan's company, Ozkanlar Sirketler Grubu, already has five-star hotels in Belarus, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovenia, Turkey and St. Maarten; it also owns a pasta factory and has interests in schools, mosques and other institutions throughout Turkey.

When completed, the Princess Hotel's casino will have 500 slot machines and 20 gaming tables; it'll also boast a conference center able to accommodate 400 people -- the largest meeting hall of its kind in Belize. Total investment in the project, he said, is $20 million.

The hotel's "rack" rate, or published tariff, is $125 a night, though tourists on package deals pay half price. "We know we're going to make money, but we don't know how much," said Conway, who supervises 200 hotel employees.

According to Anthony Mahler, director of product development at the Belize Tourist Board, Belize has around 4,000 hotel rooms in nearly 400 properties. In 1999, some 157,000 tourists visited the country, generating $198 million in foreign exchange -- or about 18% of Belize's total GDP.

Most of those tourists came from the United States and Western Europe. But that's not necessarily the clientele Martin is trying to reach.

"Our main market is southern Mexico," he said. "Mexicans are big gamblers, and so are South Americans. They're all going to be attracted to this place. Belize has no nightlife."

Conway said that in order to open the casino, the Princess Hotel had to pay the government a gaming license fee of $100,000, under new regulations issued last September. In addition, the government imposes a 5% tax on all casino revenues. He added that the slot machines in his casino have been approved by the Nevada Gaming Commission, and that the average payout is 95%.

For now, hardly any tourists are seen in the Princess casino, though that may change soon. Says Conway: "We hope to get 20% of our clientele as foreigners."

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