Italian enclave on Swiss lake is threatened as huge casino goes bust

Survival of 1,250-year-old Italian enclave on shores of Swiss lake is threatened as huge casino that brings in thousands of visitors goes bust

  • The giant casino employing a quarter of the population went bankrupt in July
  • Since then community has struggled with loss of income and unemployment 
  • Livelihoods evaporated when a local Italian court in Como ordered the casino to close after it failed to honour its financial obligations

Campione d’Italia, a tiny Italian tax haven on the shores of Switzerland’s Lake Lugano, is now fighting for its survival after its giant casino employing around a quarter of the population went bankrupt.

The Casino closed its doors last July after decades of attracting tourists to the small enclave. 

Since then the community has struggled to cope with the loss of income and unemployment which has seen the Mayor quit, the local nursery close and the food bank inundated with people in need.

‘SOS Campione is dead’ reads a giant banner hung opposite the immense 10 floor casino designed by Swiss architect Mario Botta and made up of modernistic cubic-shaped blocks with darkened windows. 

The Italian enclave of Campione d’Italia with its casino, a large building designed by Swiss architect Mario Botta, standing tall in the middle

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

The demise of the casino is believed to have stemmed from new laws whittling away the house winnings and the rise of internet gambling.

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

The front of the Casino Municipale in Campione d’Italia, that has remained closed since July

Slot machines turned off inside the casino in Campione d’Italia as the building lies unused 

For decades, it guaranteed the prosperity of the town, 23 kilometres from Italy.

Fiorenzo Dorigo, who worked at the casino for 21 years said: ‘Those who were lucky enough to be born here, were lucky enough to have a job.

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

Union representative Vincenzo Falanga poses next to a banner that reads ‘SOS Campione is dead’ in the Italian enclave of Campione d’Italia in Switzerland

The towns livelihood instantly 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.    

Evgenia Petrova, a 52-year-old Russian artist, a resident of Campione since 2012, describes the atmosphere of the village as ‘sad’ now that the ‘Italian positivity’ has faded.

However there is still hope for the casino’s resurrection after a Milan court recently overturned the Como legal ruling on the grounds of procedural inconsistencies.

Children’s smocks hang from a balustrade by the Lake to protest against the shut down of a kindergarten following the casino’s bankruptcy of the casino in Campione d’Italia

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.

Unionist Vincenzo Falanga said: ‘Campione is Italian. Italy cannot just abandon it. It must take all possible steps [to save the enclave]. 

Campione’s history of 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.

Swiss and Italian aid groups say that around 200 people now usually show up at their thrice monthly food and other aid distributions following the casino’s redundancy 

Giorgio Zanzi, Campione d’Italia’s municipality administrator, poses inside the Mayor’s office in Campione d’Italia

‘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’. 

Another view of the large casino which dominates the skyline on the Swiss shores along with the mountains


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