by Oana Mihalache
Even if the gambling landscape in Trinidad and Tobago is not completely smooth – as it’s on its way towards norming and regulation – for sure the soft sand on the beaches and the views that remind us of the most exotic postcards can surely make up for this deficiency and more than that, represent an attraction for tourists and players alike. Despite the lack of clear regulations, there are many casinos that operate for some years now on the two islands, and they don’t just attract customers, but they also bring important incomes for the state, collected as excises. Well, given the fact that the gambling industry is so flourishing, and the first steps towards a clear legislative package have been made in 2016, we can only be optimistic regarding the future of this industry in Trinidad and Tobago. But first, let’s discover it properly…
…starting with the development of an underground gambling industry
This is due to the fact that the legislation initiated in 1995 laid the foundation for the appearance of Private Clubs that in time got to include slot machines and another games put at the disposal of customers. Obviously, these Clubs developed in an illicit manner and the gambling activities they offered were not properly regulated. At the end of the 1990s, through an amendment for the law that allowed these Clubs to be registered, the installation of electronic game machines was allowed, as well as table games. Consequently, ”a sector of the gambling industry, completely unregulated, quickly developed”, said the Finance minister, Colm Imbert. In fact, they started to function as live casinos.
By perpetuating these loose regulations, the gambling industry on the two Caribbean islands soon exploded: over 200 Private Clubs appeared, and on top of that more than 20.000 game machines were functioning in the 4000 bars and pubs existing in the entire country.
Nevertheless, their contribution to the economy of the country was by no records negligible: in 2012 authorities estimated that these Clubs employed over 7.000 people and they were paying weekly salaries totaling $6.7 million with the state collecting in the same year taxes reaching $28 million as excises.
Theoretically, gambling activities were regulated by the Gambling and Betting Act, amended in 2014. Still, more than a dozen casinos continued to operate clandestinely, without respecting the regulations of this Act.
The biggest casino in the country is The Royal Princess Members Club, which offers a varied selection of game machines (totaling 180) – including slots, progressive jackpot, video poker, electronic roulette terminals, as well as 12 live table games with Blackjack, Roulette, Texas Hold’em, 3 Card Poker, 4 Card Poker, 5 Card Poker and Rhum 32. Besides from the cash awards that can reach $200.000, every month a lucky player gets to walk home with a car.
Turnover/ year: $12 billion
Since the Act from the middle of the 20th century, no other government attempted to create a coherent legislative framework to accommodate regulations in the gambling industry…not until last year. Since 2013 the ministry of Finance was warning with regard to the negative social impact that the lack of regulations has, but also concerning the proliferation of money laundering activitites. In May of 2016 a legislative proposal was introduced, clearly stipulating the conditions for issuing licenses, but also for exerting a supervising acivity in the industry.
For an industry that records a turnover of $12 bln. Each year, many starting to raise concerns regarding the ensuing interdictions, even though the authorities gave insurances that the new law – for the Control of Games and Betting – will bring new jobs in the industry and will boost the economy by bringing an extra income of $500 million per year to the state budget. According to the initiators of the law, Trinidad and Tobago is one of the only countries in the Western hemisphere with such a prosperous and yet poorly regulated gambling industry.
What does the new law bring new: among other things, it comes with the establishment of a Control Commission for gambling, but also with the introduction of licenses for those who own, operate or produce gaming machines. On top of that, big penalties were introduced for breaking the law in the field. Some penalties can even reach $25 million. The law has already passed the Chamber of Representatives and must now pass through the Senate.
Other changes relate to online gambling, a segment currently under regulated as well. Basically, players in Trinidad and Tobago can enter any site that offers online gambling, from other countries, as the state did not issue licenses for online gambling so far.
The case of Trinidad and Tobago is an example of horizontal development in the gambling industry, by expansion of individual business arms independent of the state. The government’s attempt to regulate this field represents a test for the free marked and the gambling industry will surely pass it, and not only that but it could also rejuvenate by attracting new investors. We will keep an eye on these islands!