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BAHAMAS: Gambling

Originally published Sunday, April 9, 2006

Prowling the casino at Atlantis, you can close your eyes and easily imagine that you're in Las Vegas: The clack of chips, the melodic - some might say annoying - chant of electronic slot machines, the occasional cry of triumph from a gambler who has just won a big bet or hit a jackpot.

Open your eyes, and the casino decor - bright colors, lights and an atmosphere of excitement - will also make you think of Vegas.

But this isn't Las Vegas, and gambling in the Bahamas - though the stakes can accommodate the highest of high rollers - can somewhat be described as Vegas lite.

The choice of games is limited, so too are the range of table minimums; a hunt for a $15 blackjack table at Atlantis will likely be futile. At night, better come to the table prepared to play $25 a hand.

Until last year, the most popular game in America - poker - wasn't regularly available anywhere in the Bahamas.

And if your luck is running bad at one casino, options are also limited.

If you're in Nassau and taking a beating at Atlantis, you can take a long taxi ride to the Crystal Palace Casino on Cable Beach. If you're gambling on Grand Bahama, your only option to change your luck is to hit the beach because there's just one casino operating right now in Lucaya. A new casino is coming in May at the Four Seasons Emerald Bay on Great Exuma.

None of this mattered 30 years ago, when the only legal casinos in the United States were in Nevada and casinos in the Bahamas, less than an hour's plane ride away, beckoned Floridians.

IT'S A NEW GAME

Now casinos dot the American landscape, casino cruises to nowhere leave from multiple Florida ports, the Seminoles and Miccosukees have built grand gambling halls and Broward County is on the cusp of becoming home to as many as four casinos.

That has caused the Bahamas to put less emphasis on gambling.

``Many years ago, the Bahamas engaged in a tremendous amount of junket travel'' - subsidized trips where people came exclusively to gamble - said David Johnson, deputy director-general of tourism for the Bahamas.

``Now people are coming more as a vacation, they're coming to see the destination and they visit the casino while they're there.''

Howard Karawan, president and managing director of Kerzner International, owners of Atlantis, agreed.

``Gaming is so prolific now in the U.S. people aren't going to travel on a plane to just gamble anymore. Only 10-15 percent come mainly for gambling, yet 90 percent participate once they get here. They spend more on food and entertainment than in the casino.''

That could change with the planned massive redevelopment on Nassau's Cable Beach that will include a new Harrah's casino that will, at 95,000 square feet, be almost three times the size of the Crystal Palace it will replace. In the interim, the Crystal Palace has just undergone a $6.75 million renovation.

Atlantis, the mega-resort that for now is the upscale flagship of Nassau's destinations, isn't standing still in the face of new competition.

Richard Waters, senior vice president of casino operations at Atlantis, said an 8,000-square-foot casino expansion is planned, which will bring total space to more than 50,000 square feet.

``The casino is still a very important amenity to the resort,'' Waters said. ``It's a part of the overall resort experience.''

BAHAMIAN SLOTS

Still, there are some peculiarities to Bahamian gaming laws and the locale that make gambling there different from the United States.

Consider slot machines.

In Las Vegas and other casino cities, progressive jackpot machines that promise prizes of millions of dollars are very popular. They achieve such large jackpots by linking thousands of machines in multiple casinos and raking off money from each into the mega-jackpot pool.

Waters said that because the Bahamas has licensed just five casinos in the country - and one on Grand Bahama is currently closed - that option isn't viable. Hence, slot jackpots tend to max out at about $100,000.

Then there's poker, currently the rage thanks to the proliferation of televised multimillion-dollar tournaments.

``Until recently there were no government regulations in place for the game of poker itself,'' Waters said.

When that changed, Atlantis began hosting a high-stakes tournaments, but it still doesn't offer poker on a daily basis.

Waters said that conventional wisdom holds that poker games can only flourish if there is a pool of local gamblers who regularly play. That keeps the games going so visitors can always find some action.

But Bahamian law bans its citizens from playing at the casinos, which means no local players to support the games. Nonetheless, last September the Crystal Palace started offering daily poker games at six tables.

Regardless, the overall casino experience in the Bahamas is likely to satisfy most visitors, most of whom don't go there primarily for the gambling. At Atlantis, the average visitor spends only about 90 minutes gambling.

``It's still the overall resort experience that's driving the resort,'' Waters said.

But the expansion at Cable Beach, scheduled to start later this year and be completed in 2010, could raise the stakes and change the atmosphere.

Miami Herald staff writer Marjie Lambert contributed to this report.

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