New Zealand gaming not quite in Stratosphere

Jul 30, 2002 12:38 AM

New Zealand has a Stratosphere look-alike in the soaring 328-meter Sky Tower that overlooks sprawling and vibrant Auckland. But is Sky Tower a gaming success like the Las Vegas hotel and casino?

The BBC News reported last week in its edition that gambling in Auckland has not proved to be quite as glamorous as Las Vegas.

Most weekdays busloads of senior citizens arrive at Sky City to play what are known as "the pokies" ”” row upon row of flashing-light, coin-eating slot machines.

The scare tactics of many casino opponents, claiming that gaming would bring gangland takeovers, pawn shops, extortion, money lenders and more prostitution, proved false. What has taken place is the increased number of slots.

Last year the country spent more money on gambling than on all health services.

The spread of slot machines has some opponents concerned that casinos will appear in pubs and bars across Auckland.

"Once you normalize accessibility to large casinos, then the rest of the industry says they have to have it too," said Ralph Gerdelan, executive director of New Zealand’s Problem Gambling Foundation. "It becomes difficult for a regulator to maintain some kind of distinction."

When the Auckland casino first opened, the number of problem gamblers asking for help accelerated by more than 50 percent over a six-month period. The rate has since dropped to 30 percent and has leveled off at that figure since.

Sky City is one of New Zealand’s most successful businesses and is now regarded as a blue chip investment with 1,400 slot machines and more than 90 gambling tables. It has applied to install another 230 machines and 12 tables.

The number of machines outside casinos have increased almost four times since 1989. In March 1989, there were 4,600. By the end of 2001, the number had increased to 17,700.