Prime Minister Bruce Golding made the announcement in the House of Representatives on April 22 during the annual budget debate. Golding made no secret of his support of casino licensing before becoming Prime Minister so this was not an unexpected revelation. What was unknown prior to the announcement was whether the majority of the government would agree.

Golding went on to explain that applications for a casino license will be given consideration if the proposal meets strict government criteria for approval. Proposals must feature a minimum investment of $1.5 billion US dollars and plans must include construction of at least 1000 new hotel rooms. Casino portions of any proposed development cannot exceed 20% of the total project and the casino operators must pass governmental scrutiny into their track record.

Golding also said that proper regulation must be in place in order for casino licensing to take place. He said that “a team chaired by the Hon. Dennis Lalor has been established to recommend to the Government the appropriate regulatory framework and tax regime to govern the operation of casinos. These will inform the legislation, which will be brought to Parliament for consideration and approval”.

For those who may have had a bit of difficulty following Golding’s statement, this means licenses won’t be issued until the government figures out how to regulate and tax the gambling operations.

In the meantime, Golding said the government has already approved a proposal from Celebration Jamaica Limited, the same developers who own the Palmyra Resort and Spa at Rose Hall. The developers have promised a major investment if they get a casino license approved. The company plans to put $1.8 billion dollars into developing a 65-acre site that adjoins the existing resort. It would include the construction of 2080 more hotel rooms on the property, thus meeting the requirements that Golding has set forth.

A second development would also grow from this initial proposal as the Tavistock Group, owners of Harmony Cover, would be allowed to develop a 9 hotel cluster development in the same region. This concession is being granted to the Tavistock Group in exchange for their giving up the exclusive rights to operate gaming machines within 10 miles of any Trelawny border. This agreement had been made under the previous administration but the Tavistock Group readily agreed to amend the agreement so that they would have access to getting a casino license.

Gambling has long been a controversial subject in this conservative island nation. Although there are lotteries and hundreds of slot machines, ultra-conservative segments have long stood in the way of legalizing other casino type games. The church is a very powerful force in Jamaica and has maintained its anti-gambling views for many years. This hasn’t changed according to a recent statement issued by the Jamaica Council of Churches.

“The Jamaica Council of Churches remains adamant in its opposition to gambling, whether it is casino or other forms. We acknowledge that there is plethora of gambling on Jamaica; however, we do not need anymore such evil. We must give due recognition to the creativity of our people. At a time when as a society we are faced with the erosion of fundamental values, we must encourage a greater sense of care and concern for others, as well as encourage persons to embrace the ethics of work towards sustainable development.”

On the other side of the gambling question stands the Private Sector Organization of Jamaica (PSOJ). Established in 1976, PSOJ is a national organization of private sector associations, companies and individuals that are working together to promote a competitive and productive private sector. The group’s mission statement says that the organization’s objective is to “promote prosperity through sustainable economic growth and development”. The current president of PSOJ says the group supports the government’s decision because of the positive economic impact it is likely to have, especially for the tourism and entertainment markets. He issued a press release announcing his group’s support of the decision to license casinos.

“In addition to the revenue to be earned by the government, casino gaming will bring with it direct and indirect benefits to a wide cross-section of Jamaicans and will impact on a number of sectors such including tourism, construction and transport. As the creation of jobs is one of the PSOJ’s priority areas, the organization also sees the introduction of casino gaming as contributing to the private sector’s efforts to reduce the level of unemployment here in Jamaica.”

The Jamaican Gleaner, a popular newspaper, conducted a poll of its readers in January and then compared it to one they had done last year. It appears that the Jamaican people were fairly evenly split between being for or against the casino licensing. The latest poll revealed 48% were in favor of allowing the casino games. This is up 8% over the poll results from last year. While only up 8% in wanting the casinos, there were 15% fewer people against the decriminalization of illegal casino games. So that shows an additional 7% of people polled who may not want a casino particularly, but they don’t mind if other people want one.

As you can imagine, it may still be a long road until the first casino license is issued and perhaps further until a casino actually opens. The framework of regulation and allowance for tax collection must still be hashed out through legislation. The process of handling the additional revenues generated must also be set up to funnel the monies into capital development in health, education and security as promised by Golding when he made the casino licensing proposal.

The controversy certainly isn’t over yet. The church and other ultra-conservative groups will certainly attempt to influence the government away from their decision as well as to sway the populace concerning the perceived evils of gambling. On the other hand, the proposal has influential groups like the PSOJ lobbying for passage. It remains to be seen how heated the battle will become but you can bet on one thing and be sure to win. Gambling groups all over the world will be watching the outcome with interest.