Risto Karajkov in Skopje -
Gevgelija is fast becoming the Las Vegas of the Balkans. What used to be a small Macedonian farming village right on the border with Greece, is now home to a blossoming casino complex, the biggest of which is one of the 10 most profitable companies in this tiny Balkan republic.
Greeks from the biggest city in the north, Thessaloniki, have been flocking across the border at weekends. The casino industry in Greece is more tightly regulated Thessaloniki has only one large casino at the Hyatt Regency.
The first casino was the Apolonia, which opened its doors in 1991, catering to card sharks of northern Greece, only a few miles away from Gevgelija. But as the Macedonian business grew, two more small casinos opened in the area in the summer resort of Dojran.
But the breakthrough came in 2005, when a grand new Flamingo hotel casino opened 50 metres from the border crossing between the two countries at Bogorodica. Sporting some 60 rooms, plenty of entertainment content, and above all, acres of gambling tables, the $30m Flamingo dwarfed Apolonia.
Now gambling around Gevgelija has reached critical mass. The Flamingo has employed almost all the skilled young people in the area and currently has some 600 staff. The casino is ranked the ninth most profitable company in the whole country, according to the Euro Business Center consulting company, raking in over €10m in 2007.
Flamingo set the ball rolling but now the big boys are moving in. The Princess Group owned by Sudi Ozkan, who in Turkey is referred to as the "casino king," is already in the advanced stages of building a Sheraton casino hotel just opposite Flamingo. According to recent reports, the construction should be completed by the end of the year. The new casino will have 200 rooms and be at least twice as big as Flamingo.
Another 2 kilometres down the road at the entrance into Gevgelija, is the California Resort, which is supposed to open an even bigger resort with some 400 rooms. Work has already started, but the project encountered difficulties, reportedly because of disagreement with the authorities over who should finance the construction of an expensive protective wall at the bank of Vardar River to secure the hotel from possible flooding. At present, the project is on hold.
A third project is being led by Slovenia's Terme Olimia, which has announced plans to build a hotel, casino and a spa resort in the nearby area of Smokvica, which has unexploited thermal springs.
Gevgelija is styling itself as the Macedonian Vegas; indeed, former mayor Dragi Delev even went to Las Vegas to meet with his counterpart there to pick up some ideas. Until now, most of the tourists have been Greek citizens. But with the Princess Group project nearing completion and a few more on the way, the authorities are hoping to attract tourists from farther away; Thessaloniki airport is less than an hour away and the word is that the new Sheraton will have a helipad
In the meantime, prices of real estate in the area have skyrocketed. And the national government has also started to realize the town's potential and the impact it could have on unemployment, which at about 35% is highest in the region. A recent draft strategy for regional development suggests that conditions for gambling tourism should be promoted in Gevgelija.
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