Monday 16 March 2015

Floating casino draws Singaporeans loath to pay $100 levy at home

Gambling on the high seas
By Theresa Tan, The Sunday Times, 15 Mar 2015

It is a weekday afternoon and the Lido casino is packed with at least 500 people. There is hardly a seat available for those who also want to gamble.

There are about 40 tables offering games such as roulette, baccarat and poker. Two other rooms have more than 200 jackpot machines between them, but the crowd is thinner there.

This is the scene at the casino on board the Leisure World cruise ship, which sails in international waters off the Indonesian island of Batam and is thriving once again.

Floating casinos offering gamblers a "cruise to nowhere" took a big hit when Singapore's two casinos opened in 2010.

But the crowds have returned to the Leisure World, and they appear to be mostly elderly Singaporeans unwilling to pay the $100 levy to enter the casinos here.

A spokesman for New Century Tours, the ship's Singapore-based tour operator, told The Sunday Times: "Our business dropped drastically after the casinos opened. We had fewer than 500 passengers on some days. But as the (Singapore) casinos lost their novelty, the crowds started to come back in 2013."

Now, the spokesman said, it gets between 600 and 700 passengers daily, four in five of whom are Singaporeans, and the rest, Malaysians.

The spokesman said the Leisure World cruises "very slowly" in international waters near Batam, and has been there since the early 2000s. It is owned by Queenston Maritime, a company registered in the British Virgin Islands. New Century Tours is a Singapore travel agent.

There used to be three such floating casinos in recent years, but Leisure World is the only one known to be operating close to Singapore now.

The Sunday Times joined the crowd heading to Leisure World on a recent weekday.

Eight ferries leave the Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal every day between 8am and 8.30pm, with an additional trip on weekends.

For $43, you get a return ticket which includes free buffet meals on board the Leisure World. Those over 55 years old get a weekday discount and pay $23.

The ferry takes 40 minutes to get to the Nongsapura Ferry Terminal in Batam. Passengers then switch to a domestic ferry that takes them to the Leisure World in 20 minutes.

The whole trip takes about one hour and 15 minutes, including transit time at Nongsapura.

On the domestic ferry ride, about a dozen senior citizens chose to stand at the exit throughout, just to be the first to board the ship and get to the casino tables.

Most of the patrons on the casino ship appeared to be in their 50s and older, with a good mix of men and women.

Those who spoke to The Sunday Times said they usually visit the ship once a week, arriving in the morning and leaving by evening.

The Singaporeans said they frequent Leisure World because they prefer not to pay the $100 levy to enter the Singapore casinos. Besides, the ferry ticket is affordable and takes care of their meals.

Another draw: Minimum bets are relatively low. The bets start at $2, compared to $25 for most table games at the Singapore casinos.

A retired shipyard worker in his 60s said he visits Leisure World at least once a week as he is "bitten by the gambling bug".

He brings $700 to gamble, and loses more often than he wins.

A cabin on board the ship costs $40, but most passengers do without it as they come for a day trip, some staying for just two hours of gambling.

A part-time factory worker, 60, said he gambles for two or three hours in the morning and leaves by lunch-time to go to work. He visits the floating casino once or twice a week, hoping to win a few hundred dollars.

Some of those The Sunday Times spoke to said their families had no idea they spent their day gambling at sea.

A businesswoman in her 40s said she told her husband she was staying overnight with a friend, then took the evening ferry to the Leisure World and booked a cabin to sleep over.

She had lost more than $3,000 by the next afternoon when she was heading home.

Another woman, a 70-year-old former hawker, started visiting the casinos after retiring two years ago. She visits the Leisure World once a week.

She said: "There is nothing to do at home, and it is very boring."

Last resort for some after getting banned
By Theresa Tan, The Sunday Times, 15 Mar 2015

Some gamblers head for the floating casino after getting banned from entering Singapore's two casinos.

A 43-year-old sales consultant, who declined to be named, told The Sunday Times that he applied for a self-exclusion order after losing at least $50,000 in the Singapore casinos over just a few months.

He owed more than a dozen loan sharks and licensed moneylenders more than $20,000, plus hefty interest.

"It is very hard to quit," he said. "I kept thinking of winning back all the money I had lost."

He then started going to the Leisure World floating casino.

He would head to Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal after work, take the 8.30pm ferry to Batam and reach the floating casino by 10pm. He would then gamble into the wee hours, and take the first ferry back to Singapore at 6.15am, and report for work by 9am.

At one point last year, he was at the floating casino three to four nights a week and chalked up losses of at least $20,000.

His wife divorced him because of his gambling. He is finally seeking help, and has asked his counsellor at Blessed Grace Social Services to keep his passport, so he cannot travel to Leisure World any more.

Another man, a 35-year-old former bank employee who used to earn $150,000 a year, told The Sunday Times that over the past five years, he got himself banned from the Singapore casinos three times and revoked the ban twice.

After he applied for his third self-exclusion order, he started going to Leisure World. He stopped only when no one - not even loan sharks and licensed moneylenders - would lend him any more money to gamble.

He said he had lost at least $500,000.

He quit his well-paid job after being hounded by licensed moneylenders at work. He now drives a taxi and is also seeking help to quit gambling.

Asked why he could not stop going back to his habit, he said: "I wanted to win back my losses to settle my debts, which kept getting bigger."

1 in 4 under self-exclusion order gets ban revoked
By Theresa Tan, The Sunday Times, 15 Mar 2015

About one in four gamblers who banned themselves from the two casinos here subsequently got the ban revoked.

The National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG) told The Sunday Times that since self-exclusion orders were introduced in 2009, over 75 per cent of those who banned themselves continued to stay out of the casinos.

But the group who got the ban revoked has worried counsellors, who found the proportion high, and said that these gamblers often ended up deeper in debt after heading back to the casinos.

They felt that more could be done to help those seeking self-exclusion orders, and suggested compulsory counselling to help them quit gambling. They said many gamblers ban themselves to appease family members, such as wives who threaten to divorce them or family members who refuse to pay their debts until they get the exclusion order.

"When people ban themselves, they are very motivated to quit at that point. But if their addiction is not treated, they will definitely go back to gambling after some time," said Mr Billy Lee, founder of Blessed Grace Social Services which counsels gambling addicts.

Counsellors said some of those banned from the casinos here head for the Leisure World cruise ship, a floating casino off Batam, or gamble in other ways.

As of the end of last year, 14,877 Singaporeans and permanent residents remained barred from the casinos under self-exclusion orders.

Once a self-exclusion order is granted, the person must stay on the ban for at least a year before he can apply to have it revoked.

While about 25 per cent of this group end up getting the ban revoked, the picture is different for gamblers who are banned from the casinos because their families took out family exclusion orders.

Some 1,912 people remained banned by their families as of the end of last year. Only 2 per cent of those barred by their families have had those bans revoked.

The NCPG spokesman said revoking a family exclusion order is a "rigorous process". Among other things, the gambler must prove that his circumstances have changed significantly enough to warrant a review of the ban.

Generally, he goes through at least two assessment and counselling sessions with NCPG-appointed counsellors before a decision is made. The Sunday Times understands his family is consulted too.

The NCPG explained that the process of revoking a self-exclusion order is different from that for a family exclusion, as the self-imposed ban is voluntary.

Still, a person wishing to rescind his self-exclusion order is interviewed by NCPG-appointed counsellors, who ask about his gambling behaviour and how it has affected himself and his family. If required, he is referred for treatment or further counselling, the spokesman said.

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