The Sri Lankan parliament has passed a bill that, for the first time, fully regulates casino gaming betting on sports and horse racing.
The government says this will help revive its tourism industry, which was decimated by three decades of civil war. The move stands in contrast to the country’s traditional social conservative policies.
The bill sparked opposition but it still passed with large majority in a chamber overwhelmingly dominated by allies of President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Gambling is not completely new to Sri Lanka. Flashing neon lights entice visitors into a number of casinos and shops where people bet on foreign horse and greyhound races. However, these outlets have survived by exploiting legal loopholes and paying taxes to local authorities.
The new law allows the establishment of special zones for gaming. Investors are already lining up to take part in a proposed $500m tourism zone in the Beira Lake area of Colombo, the nation’s capital.
With the legal change, the national government will take charge of all gambling licenses. A minister will have the power to create large geographical zones where gaming businesses can be set up.
Anyone doing so without the licence will face heavy fines and up to five years in prison. A tourism official told the BBC that in the next six years Sri Lanka aims to boost tourism numbers fivefold and gaming regulations will help make those numbers a reality.
Sri Lanka only recently emerged from a 26-year period of civil unrest, which at times had erupted into full-scale civil war. Now the nation is looking to rebuild its tourism industry and casino gaming is one important element of that effort and it’s another country joining the Asian Gaming boom.