Down on their luck: Minsk casinos hit by Russian downturn
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The casinos of Belarus’s capital were once so full of rich players from Moscow that some called it the “Russian Las Vegas”.
Flush in cash, gambling dens such as the XO and Carat gave away Hummers and Range Rovers just to make the eight-hour drive back to Moscow, where gambling has been illegal since 2009, more enjoyable. High rollers would bring $100,000 to play for a weekend, and the luxury property market grew as rich Russians bought apartments and installed their local mistresses in them.
The brightly lit casinos still dot central Minsk, conspicuous among the Stalinist architecture and the monuments to Soviet-era figures such as the secret police founder Felix Dzerzhinsky. But there are plenty of empty places at the gaming tables.
On a recent weekday evening at the Casino Royal just off of Lenin Square, Alexander Isayenko, a business consultant s188 from Moscow, was playing a solitary game of poker as his friend looked on. Players were just as sparse at the other half-a-dozen tables in the casino.
“Lots of Muscovites used to come here, but now there’s a crisis and most of them disappeared,” Isayenko said. “They’re either working or they’re face-down in the crisis.”
Hit by falling oil prices and western sanctions, the rouble lost more than half of its value towards the end of 2014, and this year Russia has entered recession. The Belarusian economy, which is heavily dependent on Russia, is also shrinking, but it is the Russians’ reduced spending power that has hit the casinos hardest.
According to Helen Keane, the general manager of the Shangri La, up to 80% of the casino’s customers are Russians. They don’t need a visa to come to Belarus, can get to Minsk quickly – it’s only an hour-and-a-half by plane from Moscow – and benefit from the fact that the dominant language in the city is Russian. The most popular game after roulette is “Russian poker”, a local variation of Caribbean stud poker.
Casinos in Minsk would typically invite players who buy at least $10,000 worth of chips for all-expenses-paid weekends, arranging charter flights from Moscow and booking luxury hotel rooms. Many more would come on their own. Since the start of the crisis, however, fewer Russians are going abroad to gamble, and those who do have less money to spend, according to tour operators.
“Earlier, I could spend $10,000 in a night. Now I’ll play for $1,000,” said Andrei Sergeyev, a developer from Moscow who used to come at least once a month to Minsk for business and gambling. This was his s188 first trip to the city in six months.
Players with money now go elsewhere in Europe to gamble, according to Sergeyev. “In all the casinos it’s one to two guys at each table … Where will they get their profits from?” he asked.
Experts say the crisis is likely to continue, and a rash of recent closures seems to mark the beginning of the end for the Minsk casino boom. More than a dozen major casinos were operating in Minsk before the crash. But this year, the Bakara, Millennium, Mirage, Victoria and Zolotoi Arbuz all shut their doors.
The Shangri La has 10-20% fewer customers than before the crisis, according to Keane, and their s188 spending power has also shrunk. “We did lose quite a few visitors. A lot of our players had less money, but they would still visit,” she said.
Despite the downturn, Isayenko and Sergeyev said Minsk remained a far more attractive destination than Russia’s four designated gambling zones, where most infrastructure is still under construction. One of the casinos in the Azov City gaming zone, which has been built in the middle of farm fields south of Rostov-on-Don, operates in a giant tent. Azov City is expected to soon be closed entirely in favour of a gaming zone in Sochi, at a loss of millions of dollars to investors.
According to Keane, who started out in the gaming s188 industry 30 years ago as a dealer in the English resort of Blackpool, a few high-end casinos in Minsk will survive, while many smaller casinos and slot parlours will likely close down.
“We saw a downturn in revenues but not to the extent that our business would close. We cut our costs. We weren’t hurting, some of the others are,” she said.
“Russia’s lived through several crises, but they survive, and there are always are some who will play,” she added. “If you’re a billionaire and you lose a few million, you’re still a billionaire.”
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