Another bite at MacVegas? - September 2014

For those of you long enough in the tooth and interested enough in gambling politics, you may remember the talk of licensing a casino resort in Scotland back in the late 1990’s. When the New Labour government came to power, one of their manifesto commitments was to bring devolution to Scotland, which they did with the Scotland Act 1998 that established the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood.

In the build-up to the legislation and linked with the talk about wider gambling liberalisation, was the serious suggestion that if Scotland gained powers over gambling, it could licence a casino resort to attract tourists and taxes. The idea, quaintly called MacVegas, was based on the fact that tourists to Scotland, the majority of whom come from the rest of the UK, don’t stay very long or do very much. For most it’s just a weekend break to Edinburgh. It’s usually the yanks who stay longer and venture further, but few go much beyond Loch Ness.

Scotland is a massive country, with stunningly beautiful scenery but it is mostly empty and unless you are the adventurous outdoorsy type with a penchant for midges, appreciating all this natural splendour will usually done from a plane or train window or by watching it on the television. A casino resort built on the Highlands would give tourists a reason to venture north, experience the countryside by day and enjoy the gaming tables and entertainment by night. Such a resort would not only generate much needed employment and taxes, but by giving tourists a reason to be based in the Highlands, kick-start all sorts of tourist businesses to service their needs while they weren’t relaxing at the spa or learning basic blackjack strategy.

With, at the time of writing, just 8 days to go until the referendum and opinion polls too tight to call (though this author thinks the Better Together will just squeak a win) there has never been a better time to resurrect the idea of MacVegas. If the Scots vote for independence then they will have all the power they need to introduce such a measure. If the Scots vote no, then Westminster is bending over backwards to give them more power (DevoMax – it’s not an energy drink). All it needs are some politicians with enough savvy to argue the case for it. Quite frankly, such an idea would be so far down the list of any civil servants concerns, what to do with Trident being higher, that it could be thrown in as a no-cost bonus for not putting import duty on porridge.

The only real fly in the ointment are the Scottish politicians themselves. They are as vehement and vigorous as they are red-faced and dour. Many have been known to like the occasional tipple and even one or two, solve arguments with their fists. Gambling is not one topic they have been known to give great support to.  This is due to the majority of them either having Presbyterian or Socialist roots to their belief systems, neither of which like gambling and it could be tough to convince them of MacVegas’s merits even considering the obvious economic benefits.

Looking at what little data the Gambling Commission provides on a geographic level (Gambling Behaviour in England and Scotland 2012: Past year gambling, by Government Office Region, p.35) we see that even given their hard living reputation, the Scots are not the biggest gamblers in these Islands. 45% of Scottish adults had gambled in the past 12 months on any form of gambling apart from the National Lottery. This compares with the highest gambling region, the North East with 74% and the lowest, London with 54%. It is questionable however, if this ranking (third behind the West Midlands) would stay the same if Edinburgh was separated out? The Scots, as any bookmaker knows, love to have a flutter, even if their politicians are too parsimonious too.

One simple solution, if the idea of Scots going casino crazy was too much to politically stomach, which is probably unnecessary considering the idea of the resort is to put in the middle of nowhere and attract tourists not locals, would be to do what they do in the new Asian casino resorts, either ban the locals or charge them an entrance fee. That way you prevent regular play which can be indicative of problematic gambling behaviour and yet still allow the tourists to enjoy themselves.

From a business perspective, there are a number of operators both domestic and international who would jump at the chance of building such a casino resort. Scotland, with its whisky, countryside, heritage and diaspora is only going to continue being a tourist destination. The biggest new market for this will be China and we only have to look at Macau and Singapore to see how much they appreciate a casino resort as part of their travel itinerary.

It strikes me that this is a simple policy that would take little to implement and could benefit the Scots immensely in both jobs, tax revenue and increased tourist spend while costing little socially.  In either outcome of the forthcoming referendum, politicians should give some serious thought to creating a MacVegas