What does the future hold for casinos in Ireland?

This is a question that many have been asking in recent times, and particularly in the aftermath of the 2013 Gambling Control Bill and the 2015 Betting Amendment Act, and it is by no means an easy one to answer. But before it is attempted it would be a good idea to take a look at the history of gambling in Ireland in general to put the current role played by casinos into context.

It is thought that up until the 17th century very little gambling took place in Ireland but two key events occurred over the next 100 years that did a great deal to promote it as a popular activity. The first was the growing popularity and establishment of horse racing. More organised meetings started to be established and, naturally, betting on the outcome of the races became a key element of this. The second factor was the arrival of the British who imposed a colonial rule which, inevitably, created considerable upheaval. With many other concerns to occupy their attention, the emergence of gambling went virtually unnoticed and so it began to thrive.

The start of regulation

In fact, it was not until the Irish Free State was established in 1922 that gambling regulation began to be imposed and in 1926 the first betting act was introduced. This stated that anyone taking bets at a sporting event, whether horse racing or Gaelic football, would need to be licensed by the Government.

But it was not until 30 years later that legislation was introduced to cover other forms of gambling, including casinos. The Gaming and Lotteries Act of 1956 went as far as prohibiting casinos and ruled that only lotteries run by charities would be permitted. However, there was a distinct loophole in the law that did allow private members’ clubs to operate and where table games were permitted.

For a few decades casinos continued to exist in a rather underground manner until, with the arrival of the 2013 Gambling Control Bill, both land-based and online gambling was made legal again. This was further reinforced two years later by the Betting Amendment Act of 2015 which covered online bookmakers and betting exchanges and which stated that all online operators, based anywhere in the world, must have a licence and pay tax to operate in Ireland.

The effect on casino

As part of the 2013 Bill there was one stipulation that may have a major effect on the future of casinos in Ireland, namely that the number would always be limited to a maximum of 40 and that none could have more than 15 tables. The thinking behind this was that it would prevent the development of any huge Las Vegas-style resorts which would simply be incongruous in Ireland, even in its major cities like Dublin and Cork.

There are also a number of other considerations to be taken into account when it comes to predicting the possible future for casinos in the country, and the first is whether the 4.8 million strong population would support them.

It is certainly true that there is a real appetite for gambling in the country and nowhere is this more evident than in the world of horse racing. Not only is it a culture steeped in the equine world – there is even one of the highest numbers of horses per capita in the world – it supports no fewer than 26 race courses from Punchestown to The Curragh. And, as for whether there is an appetite for betting too, one only has to look at the invasion of the Irish who turn up year after year at the Cheltenham Festival, truly turning the town green.

Another sure sign of the popularity of having a flutter is the fact that some 7,000 people are employed by the gambling industry in Ireland, whether working in bookmakers’ shops or behind the scenes at one of the country’s betting companies.

A boost for the economy

Naturally, this is also reflected in the boost that betting gives to the country’s economy. A decade ago in 2007 this was estimated as being €1.7 billion a year and, following the Betting Amendment Act of 2015, it is predicted by some to rise sharply in years to come. In the same 2007 analysis it was found that casinos only contributed one and half per cent to this figure, but estimated that this could rise as high as nine per cent to achieve a Gross Gaming Revenue of €157 million a year, reaching as much as €280 million a year by 2020.

With those sorts of figures being quoted it would seem very likely that a number of operators would have their eyes set firmly on the prize. One would imagine that the Government would also be very much in favour of promoting not just a way to raise more taxes but also to add to the 10.3 million tourists who are thought to have boosted the country’s economy by €5.3 billion in 2016.

Reconstruction on The Casino in Malahide started this month, it is expected to be completed in January 2019. This freshly refurbished building is expected to be well received in the suburban town, 15km away from Dublin city centre. The decision to refurbish the famous building, rather than simply knock it down and start again was warmly welcomed by the residents. However, they do face competition from online competitors who can offer the same services, with a lot less hassle.

The online alternative

There is a snag for operators thinking of investing in land-based casinos and this comes in the form of online gaming. In just a couple of decades, this has taken off in a way that few could have anticipated. Some estimates even suggest that as many as 12 percent of Ireland’s adult population gamble in this way with many preferring to visit a popular online casino website rather than putting in the unnecessary effort to visit a land-based casino. There are a number of reasons for this and these include both the excitement and appeal of the online versions of their favourite games and the fact that outside of the main population areas there are large rural communities who simply might not have access to the land-based alternative.

However, with the new impetus behind gambling in general which was generated by the latest legislation and an economy that is very much in recovery mode, there are certainly plenty of reasons to be bullish that before long we will be seeing not just existing casinos being given a facelift but new ones starting to open their doors.

And, for many, that moment just cannot come soon enough.

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