Floating casino draws Singaporeans who loath to pay $100 levy at home

It is a weekday afternoon and the Lido casino is packed with at least 500 people. There is hardly a seat available for those who also want to gamble.

There are about 40 tables offering games such as roulette, baccarat and poker. Two other rooms have more than 200 jackpot machines between them, but the crowd is thinner there.

This is the scene at the casino on board the Leisure World cruise ship, which sails in international waters off the Indonesian island of Batam and is thriving once again.

Floating casinos offering gamblers a "cruise to nowhere" took a big hit when Singapore's two casinos opened in 2010.

But the crowds have returned to the Leisure World, and they appear to be mostly elderly Singaporeans unwilling to pay the $100 levy to enter the casinos here.

A spokesman for New Century Tours, the ship's Singapore-based tour operator, told The Sunday Times: "Our business dropped drastically after the casinos opened. We had fewer than 500 passengers on some days. But as the (Singapore) casinos lost their novelty, the crowds started to come back in 2013."

Now, the spokesman said, it gets between 600 and 700 passengers daily, four in five of whom are Singaporeans, and the rest, Malaysians.

The spokesman said the Leisure World cruises "very slowly" in international waters near Batam, and has been there since the early 2000s. It is owned by Queenston Maritime, a company registered in the British Virgin Islands. New Century Tours is a Singapore travel agent.

There used to be three such floating casinos in recent years, but Leisure World is the only one known to be operating close to Singapore now.

The Sunday Times joined the crowd heading to Leisure World on a recent weekday.

Eight ferries leave the Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal every day between 8am and 8.30pm, with an additional trip on weekends.

For $43, you get a return ticket which includes free buffet meals on board the Leisure World. Those over 55 years old get a weekday discount and pay $23.

The ferry takes 40 minutes to get to the Nongsapura Ferry Terminal in Batam. Passengers then switch to a domestic ferry that takes them to the Leisure World in 20 minutes.

The whole trip takes about one hour and 15 minutes, including transit time at Nongsapura.

On the domestic ferry ride, about a dozen senior citizens chose to stand at the exit throughout, just to be the first to board the ship and get to the casino tables.

Most of the patrons on the casino ship appeared to be in their 50s and older, with a good mix of men and women.

Those who spoke to The Sunday Times said they usually visit the ship once a week, arriving in the morning and leaving by evening.

The Singaporeans said they frequent Leisure World because they prefer not to pay the $100 levy to enter the Singapore casinos. Besides, the ferry ticket is affordable and takes care of their meals.

Another draw: Minimum bets are relatively low. The bets start at $2, compared to $25 for most table games at the Singapore casinos.

A retired shipyard worker in his 60s said he visits Leisure World at least once a week as he is "bitten by the gambling bug".

He brings $700 to gamble, and loses more often than he wins.

A cabin on board the ship costs $40, but most passengers do without it as they come for a day trip, some staying for just two hours of gambling.

A part-time factory worker, 60, said he gambles for two or three hours in the morning and leaves by lunch-time to go to work. He visits the floating casino once or twice a week, hoping to win a few hundred dollars.

Some of those The Sunday Times spoke to said their families had no idea they spent their day gambling at sea.

A businesswoman in her 40s said she told her husband she was staying overnight with a friend, then took the evening ferry to the Leisure World and booked a cabin to sleep over.

She had lost more than $3,000 by the next afternoon when she was heading home.

Another woman, a 70-year-old former hawker, started visiting the casinos after retiring two years ago. She visits the Leisure World once a week.

She said: "There is nothing to do at home, and it is very boring."

theresat@sph.com.sg