Casinos in Nepal were reopening after months of Covid-led shutdown as the authorities eased health restrictions and waived taxes in a desperate gamble to revive international tourism that props up the domestic economy.
Nepal imposed a nationwide lockdown on 24 March 2020, called it off four months later but some health restrictions returned in larger cities of the country in April this year until they were completely lifted late last month.
It scrapped a seven-day quarantine rule for all foreigners, resumed issuing visas on arrival to fully-vaccinated international travellers and dropped remaining restrictions it imposed on the tourism industry since March last year.
“The casinos are (now) allowed to resume operations ...by following health safety protocols,” Tourism Ministry spokesman Taranath Adhikari was quoted as saying in capital Kathmandu, the hub of Nepalese gaming industry.
Nepal’s Hotel, Casino and Restaurant Workers’ Union president Surya Bahadur Kunwar said a dozen casinos had reopened and others were expected to resume “in the coming days and weeks.”
The finance ministry waived an annual royalty for casinos for Nepalese fiscal year ended 30 June to help them back on their feet following the crippling shutdown.
The industry, which owes over a million Euros to the government, furloughed most of its 15,000 workers comprising croupiers, slot attendants and pit clerks during the lockdown but promises to reinstate them after the tills start to ring.
“The casinos did not lay off their employees, but they did not pay them any salaries. We hope the industry will recover, and workers will get their jobs back,” Kathmandu Post daily quoted an unnamed official as saying.
Premium hotels forked out basic wages to workers sent home during the pandemic in Nepal, which has so far administered 14 million doses of Covid-19 vaccine shots, reported 800,000 Covid-19 infections and 11,180 fatalities.
Kishore Joshi of the Nepalese Hoteliers’ Association hoped the reopening of casinos will also kick up hotel occupancy.
Nepal’s boisterous casinos with fancy names and loud music mimicked their American cousins to draw trekkers, climbers and holiday-seekers seeking a night life in the deeply-impoverished Himalayan nation sandwiched between India and China.
Casino Royale boasted itself as Nepal’s first gaming centre which opened in 2015 in Kathmandu’s Yak & Yeti luxury hotel with 20 tables offering roulette, blackjack, pontoon and Baccarat besides 34 slot machines.
Casino Mahjong in Kathmandu-based Hotel Soaltee Crown Plaza was considered the second largest that opened to both amateur and serious gamblers with deep pockets.
“October being one of our good seasons we can expect that figure to go up once again but to jump-start the gaming industry we need high-rollers not bag-packers,” added Randhir Dahal, an India-based Nepalese tour operator.
Others added the revival depended on Indian excitement-seekers who came in droves before the pandemic.
“We are largely dependent on clients from India and now the pandemic has eased there as well so we expect lady luck to spin the wheels once again for us.” said an executive of Nepal’s Casino Operators Association.
Foreign arrivals rose two-fold in a month to nearly 10,000 in September after authorities resumed issuing visa-on-arrival to air travellers, according to Nepal Tourism Board.
Tourism-dependent Nepal took a blow during the pandemic, logging just 548 footfalls in September 2000 compared to 92,604 visitors in the same period the previous year.
Overall, the number of tourists in the erstwhile Himalayan kingdom slid to 230,000 in 2020 from a staggering 1,197,191 the previous year.
The numbers brightened a bit this year with 76,900 arrivals between January and September in Nepal where scores of home-stays, guest houses and budget hotels have downed shutters.