Tiny, Quiet, and Islamic, Turk Cyprus 'Goes Vegas'

It's Saturday night and it looks like a case of "all dressed up and nowhere to go" for the cavernous Jasmine Court Casino in Turkish-controlled northern Cyprus.

The color scheme is a dazzling concoction of acid green, orange, and yellow. Five hundred gleaming new slot machines and 30 roulette tables wait expectantly. But the nattily dressed staff of 100 young men and women easily outnumbers the handful of serious gamblers and gawping tourists.

No problem, says the management. The trickle will soon become a flood that will turn the tiny state into the Las Vegas of the Levant.

As the Islamist-led government in Turkey cracks down on gambling, casino kings are moving their businesses to nearby northern Cyprus. Eighteen casinos are now running, and the local government is considering seven more applications. In all, some 25 casinos are expected in northern Cyprus, which has only 160,000 residents. Licenses can be obtained for as little as $50,000.

Most of the casinos are clustered around sleepy Kyrenia, where the Jasmine Court Casino is the gaudy flagship of the gambling boom. Outside, the palm-lined streets and colonial-style houses have changed little since the 1950s, when the British writer Lawrence Durrell celebrated Kyrenia's "ravishing" beauty in his novel "Bitter Lemons."

Inside, the casino is pure Vegas, a 5,400-square-foot pleasure dome that can hold up to 3,000 people.

"We're probably the biggest casino in the world," enthuses Mustafa Bey, the manager.

The casinos provide jobs and are expected to fill half-empty hotels. Tourism is down 40 percent this year, following a war of words over missiles in January between Turkey and the Greek Cypriot administration in southern Cyprus. Turkey, which bankrolls northern Cyprus, hopes tourism will help its protectorate stand on its own two feet.

The biggest drawback has been that tourists flying here have to touch down first in Turkey, the only country to recognize Turkish Cyprus, which was unilaterally declared in 1983, nine years after the Turkish invasion split the island along religious and ethnic lines. Turkey invaded in 1974 amid a coup in Nicosia by a group that wanted to unite Cyprus with Greece. Turkey said it was protecting the minority Turkish Cypriots. The coup soon collapsed; 30,000 Turk troops stayed.

Because access has been difficult, the international jet set that flies into gambling havens like Monte Carlo has stayed away. The casinos rely mainly on package-tour business from Turkey and big-spending senior officers from the Turkish Army.

The influx of casinos has, however, led to increased interest from Turkish tour operators. Turkish Airlines resumed regular flights from the mainland earlier this year after a four-year break, bringing to three the number of airlines serving the breakaway state.

"We're also seeing a lot of interest from Israel," says Mr. Bey. Package-tour flights from Israel, where gambling is outlawed, touch down briefly at Antalya airport on Turkey's southern coast before flying on to northern Cyprus.

But some Turkish Cypriots are concerned the gambling boom could have serious social consequences. One reason the authorities on the mainland have closed so many casinos is that they suspect some are being used by the Turkish mafia to launder money from international drug trafficking. Lurid press reports of gangland wars in Turkey have raised fears here that such battles could spill over from the mainland.

The businessman who invested so heavily in the Jasmine Court Casino never lived to see it open. Omer Lutfu Topal, who once spent five years in a Turkish jail for trafficking drugs to the United States, was assassinated in Istanbul last July.

The Turkish Cypriot leader, Rauf Denktas, rejects reports of the possible wholesale transplant to northern Cyprus of Turkey's 70 or so casinos. "I think we have enough now, and as long as they are controlled - and we intend to be very careful - they will bring us more tourists," he says. Turkish Cypriots are not allowed to gamble in the casinos.

Explains Bey: "We don't want to disturb the social fabric or have people spending their housekeeping money here." That is another reason the Turkish authorities give for their crusade against casinos at home.

"The more that close down in Turkey, the better for us," grins Soyer Ecesoy, who manages a plush casino in Kyrenia's Dome Hotel. "We hope to see northern Cyprus become the Las Vegas of the region."

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