Roulette wheels spin once again at Nepal's casinosThe government has allowed the mothballed gambling houses to reopen after remaining shuttered for one and a half years due to virus restrictions.
The roulette wheels are spinning once again at Nepal's casinos as they emerge from Covid hibernation.
The government has allowed the mothballed gambling houses to reopen after one and a half years, and also granted them a full waiver of the annual royalty fee for the last fiscal year that ended mid-July.
All casinos and mini-casinos have remained shuttered since mid-March 2020 after anti-corona measures took hold.
On March 10, 2020, the government stopped issuing on-arrival tourist visas to travellers from China, Japan, Italy, Iran and South Korea that were severely hit by Covid-19.
Nepal enforced a complete lockdown from March 24, and the entire population was ordered to remain indoors to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
“The casinos were allowed to resume operations in line with the decision of the Kathmandu district administration office on September 1 to permit business and social activities by following health safety protocols,” said Taranath Adhikari, spokesperson for the Tourism Ministry.
Last week, Nepal removed the last remaining restrictions on tourism. On September 23, the government threw away the seven-day quarantine requirement and resumed issuing on-arrival visas to all vaccinated foreign travellers in a bid to bring the virus-ravaged tourism industry back to life.
Visitors should have received their last dose of the Covid-19 vaccine at least 14 full days prior to entering Nepal. Those who are not vaccinated or partially vaccinated will not get on-arrival visas. They have to get their entry permits from Nepali diplomatic missions, and also spend 10 days in quarantine in government-listed hotels.
The decision to unshackle the gambling houses has cheered both travel trade entrepreneurs and casino operators.
"More than half a dozen casinos including Casino Mahjong housed at the Hotel Soaltee, Casino Pride at the Annapurna Hotel, Casino Pride at the Hyatt Regency and Deltin Casino at the Kathmandu Marriott Hotel have already thrown open their doors to players," said Surya Bahadur Kunwar, president of the Nepal Independent Hotel, Casino & Restaurant Workers' Union (Central Committee). “Other casinos are gradually reopening.”
However, all casinos are yet to renew their operating permits for this fiscal year by paying the royalty.
More than 15,000 people were furloughed in the casino industry. “The hotels paid a minimum wage to their workers despite remaining closed. 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.”
Parbat Giri, an official at the Department of Tourism that oversees the country's casinos, said a number of casinos had applied to reopen as soon as the second lockdown was lifted.
The government had issued another stay-home order on April 29 after Nepal experienced a resurgence of Covid-19 cases with daily infections nearing the 10,000 mark.
On Wednesday, Nepal reported 892 new coronavirus cases in the last 24 hours, taking the nationwide infection tally to 794,163. Similarly, 265 people tested positive in a total of 3,889 antigen tests, according to the Health Ministry.
Casinos have also applied to renew their annual operating permits, Giri said. “We will start renewing their permits after we get the nod from the Finance Ministry as per the Financial Act.”
The Financial Act has set the annual royalty fee for this fiscal year 2021-22 at Rs40 million. The government has been collecting more than Rs425 million annually in casino royalty fees.
Acting upon the recommendation of the department, the Finance Ministry waived the annual royalty fee for the last fiscal year 2020-21 as all casinos were closed, department officials said.
The Financial Act says that the annual royalty will be waived for only those casinos that have been paying the fee regularly until 2019-20, and do not have any tax debts owed to the government.
The country's casinos have more than Rs1.57 billion in combined outstanding dues to the government.
On March 24, the Kumari Chowk Office, which reviews the government accounts under the Office of the Auditor General, duly wrote to the ministries of the federal, provincial and local governments to help it recover the dues which had piled up for several years.
The agency had also published the names of the debtors and their ancestors going back two generations.
As per the notice, Rakesh Wadhwa, the fugitive owner of Nepal Recreation Centre, owes the highest amount of Rs793.90 million. The company owns around 3.5 ropanis of land and a house at Kalimati.
Nepal Recreation Centre used to operate four casinos—Casino Nepal housed at the Hotel Soaltee Crowne Plaza, Casino Anna at the Hotel Annapurna, Casino Tara at the Hotel Hyatt Regency and Casino Everest at the Hotel Everest—all of which have shut down.
In June 2011, the government annulled the operating licence of Nepal Recreation Centre after it failed to pay taxes and royalties owed to the government.
Piyush Bahadur Amatya, chairman of The Fulbari Resort & Spa, has outstanding payments amounting to Rs366 million.
Radhe Shyam Saraf, chairman of the Hotel Yak & Yeti that houses Casino Royale, owes Rs176.20 million to the government.
Surendra Bahadur Singh, operator of mini casinos under the name Happy Hour, owes Rs102.87 million; and RD Tuttle, who opened Nepal’s first modern casino, Casino Nepal under Nepal Recreation Centre, owes Rs1.19 million.
In April 2014, the government decided to shut down all casinos not fulfilling the Casino Regulation 2013 and scrap the licences of those defaulting on royalties.
However, these casinos and mini casinos continue to operate taking advantage of the Supreme Court’s interim order that allows them to remain open.
According to department officials, the interim order permits the gaming houses to operate under the old regulation, but they are legally required to pay the annual royalty fixed by the Financial Act.
Around eight to nine casinos have been abiding by the Casino Regulation 2013 and paying their royalties and other fees regularly as per the regulation, according to the department.