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Authorities hope the new generation of casinos will generate millions in profits

(Keystone)

Prepare to cast your dice as Switzerland opens its first Grand Casino in Lucerne, with games such as roulette and black jack on offer for the first time.

On Thursday, the first of 21 casinos - all of which were awarded an operating licence by the Swiss government last year - will open its doors to the public.

Until now, only casinos with slot machines were legally allowed to operate in Switzerland, but the Lucerne casino will be one of seven to operate under a Class A licence, with no upper limit imposed on bets placed on the gambling table.

The remaining Class B casinos are authorised to offer a more limited range of games with smaller maximum bets.

The Lucerne casino is housed in a restored, lakeshore mansion which dates back to the 1880s. The elegant building includes restaurants and bars, as well as two large halls with gaming tables and slot machines.

Financial gamble

Authorities believe the new breed of casinos will generate millions in profits, although there are also concerns that the large number of venues could drive some smaller operators out of business.

The largest of the grand casinos, due to open in Baden on July 5, has ambitious targets: it hopes to raise SFr120 million per year.

The management of the Lucerne casino says it hopes to raise some SFr45 million per year in turnover from bets.

"We don't think our targets are really overly ambitious," Beat Rauber, Lucerne Casino's CEO, told swissinfo.

"We know from past experience that we will have many guests who will be tourists visiting Lucerne. And we also hope that a lot of people will come to us because of the restaurants, bars, discos and cultural programmes that will be on offer," he added.

Fears of market saturation

Some investors behind the smaller casinos are said to be trying to sell off their minority-stakes amid fears of market saturation.

But this concern is rejected by Casinos Austria, a company that has acquired minority stakes in six of the new casinos - including a 45 per cent stake in Lucerne.

"You have to remember that at least 20 per cent of Switzerland's population is made up of foreigners, many of whom have different attitudes to gambling," Leo Wallner, CEO of Casinos Austria, told swissinfo.

"And Switzerland is surrounded by gambling nations such as Italy."

There are also fears that the Swiss - who have traditionally viewed the casino industry with suspicion - will not take enthusiastically to high-stakes gambling.

"There's a kind of realism gripping the industry. Many of us as asking ourselves what we'll get in return for our investment and our troubles," said Christian Vollmer, head of the Swiss casino firm Escor.

Regulatory hurdles

Casino managers are also having to deal with a number of regulatory hurdles put in place by the Swiss authorities designed to protect the industry from criminal infiltration.

Any gamblers suspected of links with criminal organisations will be barred from entering casino premises, while the Swiss Casino Commission will inspect the financial accounts of gaming operators.

The Swiss Association for the Prevention of Money Laundering is also involved in controlling the movement of large cash wins.

"There are a lot of security checks in place. For instance, if someone changes more than SFr15,000 in chips, we have to ask them to prove where the money comes from," Rauber explains.

"But casinos aren't the best option for money laundering, because you actually have to win before you can only get hold of a money certificate."

In foreign hands

With only two casinos fully financed by Swiss companies, the fate of the new industry rests mainly in the hands of foreign investors.

"It's a shame that foreigners will cash in from the new casinos," Vollmer says. "The Swiss weren't really given a proper chance to participate."

Casinos Austria rejects the accusation, saying many Swiss companies had not joined in the bidding process.

"It was a very fair application process and there were actually not that many Swiss companies involved in the bidding - perhaps because of the uncertainty surrounding the future of the industry," Wallner explained.

One of the clear winners as the new casinos open is likely to be the Swiss government, which will reap between 40 and 80 per cent of the operators' profits. The money is to be ploughed back into the state pension scheme.

According to analysts, the industry will be worth around SFr1 billion in Switzerland, although more conservative estimates set the figure at SFr600 million.

by Vanessa Mock and Jean-Michel Berthoud


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