Impeccable white shirt and slender cowboy silhouette, the American Grant Johnson was dispatched to Limassol by the Hong Kong group Melco to carry out this gigantic project.

Sixteen floors, three swimming pools, nine restaurants and cafes, an adventure park, an amphitheater: Melco has dreamed big for its first establishment in the European Union (EU).

Its 7,500 square meter casino should become “the largest in Europe” with “a thousand slot machines and a hundred card game tables”, plus a VIP room for big players, says Mr. Johnson.

The boss weighs his every word. On a sheet near him, the answers have been lined up by his press relations officer who, motionless at his side, does not hesitate to interrupt him.

The arrival of City of Dreams Mediterranean, the first major player to set up shop in the south, may create new rivalries between the two parts of Cyprus — an island divided since Turkey’s invasion in 1974 following a coup d’etat guided by Athens which aimed at its attachment by Greece.

With its 34 casinos, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (RTCN, recognized only by Ankara) has made casino tourism its specialization and derives a significant financial windfall from it.

However, the South hopes to make City of Dreams a loss leader to develop the sector and attract more and more tourists – at least 300,000 more, the government supporting the project said in 2019.

For the moment, Melco has had a series of disappointments.

The Covid-19 pandemic has delayed the opening of its hotel-casino, now postponed to the end of 2022. And the war in Ukraine has reshuffled the cards.

City of Dreams was betting among other things on Russian tourists, of whom Cyprus is one of the favorite destinations. With Western sanctions against Moscow, the Russians are deprived of direct flights to the small Mediterranean island.

Despite these misadventures, City of Dreams, once inaugurated, hopes to shake the almost total stranglehold of Northern Cyprus on this industry in the region.

The island will then be placed “in a fairly exceptional situation” with capital flows arriving “potentially from Asia, but also from Turkey, Russia, Europe and the Middle East”, notes Marie Redon, researcher specializing in gambling at the Sorbonne Paris Nord University.

However, she underlines, “the more it comes from different places, the more it circulates and the more possible arrangements can take place, such as money laundering”.

– “Sensitive subject” –

Casinos in Cyprus “are a sensitive subject”, M. apologizes immediately, settling in a noisy cafe in Nicosia.

Talking too much about it, “we risk getting in trouble”, so the Greek Cypriot, specialist in the fight against money laundering, prefers anonymity. Square glasses, shaved head, the forties who works in the banking sector sometimes throws worried glances behind his shoulder.

“Until 2015, casinos were banned in Cyprus, the Orthodox Church was against it,” he explains.

Legalizing casinos was no small feat. In addition to the Orthodox Church, which is very powerful in Cyprus, part of the population was opposed to it, such as former President Demetris Christofias (2008-2013) who associated them with “corruption”.

“But after the severe economic crisis of 2013, large groups approached the government and the latter decided that the opportunity was too good,” says Mr.

“The concern,” he remarks, “is that we are not prepared for what goes with casinos: the underground economy, money laundering. eyes because we are members of the EU, we risk paying dearly for it. We cannot do like the North”.

At the gates of Europe, a whole section of the TRNC economy depends on casinos. Their ban in Turkey in 1997 prompted large groups to establish themselves in Northern Cyprus, where the industry exploded.

Nearly $600 million was donated to the state in 2019 by casinos, while the government’s total budget that year was $4.2 billion, says The Business Year, a London-based financial media.

In TRNC, casinos have the choice between paying taxes proportional to their winnings or a license at a fixed price. Most can, thanks to this last option, not reveal their income, which leaves “a great deal of opacity” in the sector, sighs Mr.

“Of course, it is not the state that will check whether they are not engaged in massive money laundering”, regrets the Cypriot-Turkish activist Esra Aygin who had to leave the TRNC for his safety. “Our state depends entirely on the casino business, our population is like taken hostage”.

Sertaç Sonan, a specialist in the economy and corruption in the TRNC, points to the example of Merit, a Turkish juggernaut in the sector.

“Merit has its own TV channel and even a newspaper. If you buy it, you get a free coffee or a Coke. The goal for them is not to make money from these media but to grow in influence,” he said. “It’s very difficult for local politicians to say no to these Turkish giants. Even more so to impose rules on them and monitor them.”

– “Las Vegas” –

In Northern Cyprus, while the vast majority of casino owners are Turkish, some were born here like Erbil Arkin, boss of the powerful Arkin group.

“I am the pioneer of casinos” in RTCN, he proclaims, caressing with tenderness a sculpture by Auguste Rodin. The businessman, of great culture, has around thirty works by the famous French sculptor and has founded a university dedicated to art, close to one of his casinos, in Kyrénia (north) .

With undisguised pleasure, Erbil Arkin, a sixty-year-old rider wearing a blue artist’s jacket, recounts how, in 1976, while studying art in London, he decided over a beer with a friend to start in the casino business in TRNC. “The opportunities were enormous.”

Northern Cyprus, which declared itself independent in 1983 while remaining under the political and economic control of Ankara, “then lived from the looting of houses” abandoned by the Greek Cypriots, he recalls.

“Since (the casinos) have been there, the economy has really changed. We were a pariah state, we have become a” tourist destination, he smiles.

“Casinos bring in a lot of money and are a great source of employment”, with 80,500 employees in the sector, mostly Turkish and Turkish-Cypriot.

The TRNC, which does not take a census, is said to have a population of 276,000 people – to which are added about 30,000 Turkish soldiers, according to experts.

It does not matter then whether the Turkish-Cypriots call Mr. Arkin “holy or damned”. The casinos “have brought invaluable wealth to Northern Cyprus: tourists”, who come mainly from Turkey, Arab countries and Israel, assures the boss.

“We have put a pariah state on the map” of the world, he insists. “We have become the Las Vegas of the Middle East!”

– Sour lemons –

On this spring Wednesday, the Arkin group’s Colony Hotel casino in Kyrenia is always full, even if the pandemic has caused a 70% drop in the number of customers according to Ahmet Arkin, brother and partner of Erbil Arkin.

Near the entrance, an older couple are playing with concentration. Further on, young people in tracksuits smoke cigarette after cigarette and line up the chips, under the gaze of two peacocks painted on a huge stained glass window.

Under a vault worthy of a cathedral, an escalator leads VIPs to the 2nd floor, where the slot machines are more gleaming. At the poker tables, the minimum bet varies between 200 and 500 dollars. The rare women are dressed with chic.

A collected calm reigns, suddenly pierced by a cry of joy. On a young woman’s slot machine, four large yellow lemons flash: she has just won 47,600 Turkish liras (3,040 euros).

“Did you see? I won!” she exclaims.

Immediately, a young man rushes to congratulate her: Babajan, 31, is responsible for the “happiness” of customers. Formerly a French professor at the university, he resigned himself to becoming a “host” at the casino to obtain a “better salary”.

Like S., a 34-year-old Turkish-Cypriot “hostess” met in North Nicosia. The young mother works in one of the Merit casinos because she “needed the money.”

“My role is to make the customer happy. If he loses, I encourage him, so that he plays again … and loses again”, confides, on condition of anonymity, the young woman carefully made up.

In a whisper, she recounts how some of her co-workers provide clients with drugs but also “female companionship”. She herself refuses “because God is watching.”

According to a 2021 report by the US State Department, forced prostitution is common in Northern Cyprus. “The 27 nightclubs in TRNC are brothels where sex trafficking frequently takes place,” the report said, noting that their managers sometimes associate with members of the local government.

– “Criminal” environment –

In Kyrenia, Erbil Arkin does not blink when AFP raises the issue of money laundering.

“I’m not saying money laundering doesn’t exist in Northern Cyprus,” he replies. “But do not look at the casinos (…) rather look at the banks”.

In another report, still in 2021, the US State Department points out that “the offshore banking sector poses a risk of money laundering” in the TRNC and says that it has “followed the trail of growing illicit activities originating in Istanbul”. .

This same report adds that “casinos and the gaming sector (are) poorly regulated and vulnerable to money laundering”.

What Erbil Arkin sweeps away wearily, while admitting that he does not check where the money his clients play comes from. “It’s up to the police to do it,” he said. “And it’s the same in the South”.

He is not wrong, admits M., the Cypriot anti-money laundering expert. The South of the island is just as reluctant to control the origin of the under-bets in its casinos. But the law regulates the establishments there more.

“The fight against money laundering (…) is a challenge and a constant process. The authorities are working to take strong measures and minimize the risks,” said the Cypriot Ministry of Finance in a comment to AFP. . And, conducted by international organizations, “the assessment of Cyprus (on this subject) shows a solid legislative framework”, he adds.

As a general rule, says Mr., casinos are “blessed bread for dirty money.”

“A Turkish trafficker walks into a casino with $100,000 earned from heroin trafficking and receives chips in exchange. He plays 20,000, loses part of it, then leaves without betting the rest. He returns (his chips) to the casino, who gives him back his money with a receipt and that sum is now clean. If asked, he can tell where it came from.”

More than elsewhere, “the TRNC is the ideal environment for any criminal activity”, adds Georgios Stavri, director of the Euro-Mediterranean Institute of Geopolitics in Nicosia.

Excluded from the international economic and political system, in particular from surveillance bodies against money laundering, “Northern Cyprus is accountable to no one (…) it is the backyard for the dirty work of Turkey. And it’s very convenient for the whole region” of the Middle East.

Regularly, the casino industry of Northern Cyprus experiences violent upheavals. In February, a Cypriot-Turkish landlord, Halil Falyali, was shot dead in Kyrenia, recalls activist Esra Aygin.

Not far from the place of the murder, the Colony Hotel continues to welcome players sometimes ecstatic, sometimes with heavy eyes.

Despite the encouragement, the young customer with the four yellow lemons decides to leave the casino. A smile on her lips, she goes to the counter and pockets a wad of dollars.

“She will come back,” promises Babajan.