Ban for Locals: Storm International CEO On Access to Casinos in Kyrgyzstan

Darren Keane, CEO of Storm International, which owns the Shangri-La casino chain around the world, was interviewed by the Fergana agency about a strategy for attracting gamblers to Kyrgyzstan. A year after the legalization of casinos in the country, access to them is prohibited for local residents. The question is whether the authorities were able to attract foreign players and what measures should be taken to attract them. The need to maintain the ban on gambling for Kyrgyzstanis was also discussed.

On the morning of September 29, 2011, shortly after the anniversary of the bloody coup d’etat, the center of Bishkek came alive again with rallies. Several hundred casino workers gathered in front of the parliament building during the consideration of a bill to ban gambling. The protesters’ posters had various slogans, such as: “The budget is losing half a billion a year without us,” “Casino is a civilized business that feeds 15 thousand people,” and “Parliament, resign!” 

The rally participants claimed that the authorities were deliberately trying to push the gambling business into the shadows, anticipating corruption. “And then these same deputies, who themselves play in casinos, will protect us.” And all the money that is now going into the state treasury will flow into their pockets,” said Myrza Niyazov, a rally participant, who is also a member of the Association of Gambling Establishments.

The protesters tried to break into the parliamentary meeting if their demands were ignored, but their requests were not heard. On the same day, Parliament adopted a document outlawing all casinos and slot machines in the country. The owners were given three months to liquidate the business.

Ten years after these events, the new president of Kyrgyzstan, Sadyr Japarov, decided to re-introduce the regulation of the gambling business. This decision resulted in the law on the legalization of casinos, slot machines and betting, which he signed in the summer of 2022 after fierce discussions in parliament. Particular controversy was caused by the provision banning casino access for the citizens of Kyrgyzstan.

“This is a mistake, and I will explain why,” Darren Keane, Chief Executive Officer of Storm International, tells Fergana. — The Kyrgyz leadership is obviously trying to protect its citizens from gambling, which can only be welcomed. However, Kyrgyzstanis, as we see, regularly play abroad, especially in the Kapchagai gambling zone in Kazakhstan, and spend money there. In essence, there is an outflow of capital from the country.”

Keane advises tightening controls on gambling establishments instead of banning local residents, as well as tightening the rules for visiting casinos.

For example, make changes to set the minimum age of visitors at 25 years old, introduce an entrance fee and require all casinos to join the Responsible Gaming program. This will allow staff to identify and help players with gambling problems.

“Storm International is proud of its responsible gaming program and has won many awards for it,” he adds. “We insist on charging an entrance fee to the casino, which we then refund in chips.” It stops people who really can’t afford it. In addition, our administrators are trained to recognize and respond to signs of gambling addiction. Wherever our casinos open, we partner with local clinics to be able to offer their services to players with similar problems.”

In his opinion, another way to attract players could be to organize weekend flights to Bishkek from cities such as Dushanbe, Tashkent, Urumqi, Ashgabat, Tehran and Islamabad to develop gaming tourism.

Currently there are just two casinos officially operating in Kyrgyzstan. The Ministry of Finance reported that since January they have paid 68.8 million soms ($771 thousand) in taxes. Two more companies have been issued licenses to open online casinos, but they have not yet started operating.

“Online casinos have also been legalized in Kyrgyzstan,” says Keene, “but because locals can’t play online, the whole point is lost. Who will play if not them? Foreigners are already playing online in their own countries where it is allowed, or at one of thousands of sites registered around the world.

In conclusion, the executive director of Storm International noted that so far none of the Central Asian republics have adopted a law that would truly develop the gambling business on its territory. “Kyrgyzstan has a chance to do everything right and actually take a huge part of the market,” he noted. Answering a direct question about the return of Storm International to Kyrgyzstan, Darren Keane said that this is possible, but only if the legislation is further changed.

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