High stakes for enclave as Europe's biggest casino goes bust

Agnès PEDRERO
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The casino dominates the tiny Italian enclave of Campione d'Italia, which depended on it as its main source of income

The casino dominates the tiny Italian enclave of Campione d'Italia, which depended on it as its main source of income (AFP Photo/Fabrice COFFRINI)

Campione d'Italia (Italy) (AFP) - Campione d'Italia, a tiny Italian enclave on the shores of Switzerland's Lake Lugano, is fighting for its survival after its main source of income -- a giant casino -- went bankrupt.

"SOS Campione is dead" reads a giant banner hung opposite the immense casino, made up of modernistic cubic-shaped blocks with darkened windows stretching 10 floors high.

"Rien ne va plus" -- the French version of "no more bets" -- reads another banner on a tent set up by the unions representing some 500 casino employees, who suddenly found themselves without work.

For the 1,961 inhabitants of this one-square-kilometre (0.4-square-mile) sovereign Italian territory inside southern Switzerland, the closure of the public casino has been devastating.

For decades, it guaranteed the prosperity of the town, 23 kilometres (14 miles) from Italy.

"Those who were lucky enough to be born here, were lucky enough to have a job," Fiorenzo Dorigo, who worked at the casino for 21 years, told AFP.

"Once you were done with your studies and military service, you reunited with all of your old school mates" working at the casino, he said.

But that comradery and income security evaporated last July, when a local Italian court in Como ordered the casino to close after it failed to honour its financial obligations to authorities in Campione, which is part of Como province.

- Hoping for resurrection -

The atmosphere in the community now that the casino is shut is "sad", said Evgenia Petrova, a 52-year-old Russian artist, living in Campione since 2012.

The typical "Italian positivity", which used to distinguish the village from the surrounding Swiss communities, "is not obvious anymore," she told AFP, looking sadly out the window of her paint-splashed studio.

But residents still hope for the casino's resurrection.

A Milan court recently overturned the Como legal ruling on the grounds of procedural inconsistencies.

And last month, the Italian government sent an expert to evaluate the possibilities of bringing the casino back to life.

Inhabitants are demanding that Rome comes to the rescue.

"Campione is Italian. Italy cannot just abandon it. It must take all possible steps" to save the enclave, unionist Vincenzo Falanga told AFP.

- Espionage -

Campione has a long and rich history.

In the year 777, a wealthy trader and landowner named Totone donated Campione -- later renamed Campione d'Italia under the rule of dictator Benito Mussolini -- to the monastery of Sant'Ambrogio in Milan, which became part of Italy in 1797.

The picturesque enclave, which with its winding walkways and hills covered in cypress and palm trees offers a magnificent view of the lake, has a unique status.

Inhabitants pay taxes to Italy, but almost everything else is Swiss, including the currency, car registration number plates, telephone lines and rubbish collection.

It is also a tax haven: there is no sales tax and inhabitants benefit from a generous tax break to compensate for the cost of living, which is also very Swiss -- meaning high.

A gaming establishment was first opened in Campione in 1917, but its main purpose was to spy on foreign diplomats during World War I, and it closed two years later.

It reopened in 1933 thanks to a decree, which remains in effect, requiring the casino proceeds to cover all municipal costs.

The casino, with its high-rollers, showered Campione in riches for decades, allowing the tiny enclave to dream big -- too big, according to some.

- Competition, online gambling -

In 2007, after seven years of construction, a brand new, 36,000-square-metre, ochre-coloured casino, saw the light of day.

The colossus, designed by Swiss architect Mario Botta, can accommodate 3,100 gamblers at a time, offering them 56 tables and around 1,000 slot machines to choose from.

But new laws permitting slot machines in bars and cafes and the rise of online gambling have gradually whittled away the house winnings.

The strengthening of the Swiss franc against the euro, as well as the opening of three large Swiss casinos nearby since 2000 have also taken their toll.

Over the past decade, as the casino's profits fell, so too did the town's fortunes.

The mayor quit, the nursery school shuttered and the tourist office is preparing to do the same.

Swiss and Italian aid groups say that around 200 people now usually show up at their thrice monthly food and other aid distributions.

"Campione has not seen a situation this difficult since the war," said Giorgio Zanzi, the administrator sent by Rome to run things after the mayor left.

His office is chilly: Campione can no longer afford fuel to keep the heating on, and municipal employees have not been paid since February 2018.

The casino and municipality have together raked up millions in debt, Zanzi told AFP, adding, though, that he was still holding out hope for a rescue.

As a result of the downturn, Campione had no candidates for Sunday's local elections and has cancelled the ballot, which should have run in parallel with voting in European elections.

- 'Small territory, big problems' -

Ideas on how to save Campione have been discussed, from investing in tourism or new technologies to the creation of an advantageous tax scheme for businesses.

But time is of the essence.

The situation will soon become even more complicated: Next year, the enclave is due to become part of the European Union customs area, raising practical questions about interactions with non-EU member Switzerland.

Authorities in Bern say discussions with Italy about the implications of the change are "under way" but refuse to give details.

Campione, Zanzi said, is "a small territory, but with big problems".