SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) – One of Puerto Rico's biggest and best known casinos closed Wednesday after 40 years of operation in another blow to the U.S. territory's struggling economy.
The Condado Plaza Hilton laid off 144 workers from the seaside casino located in the popular tourist district of Condado, managing director Raul Bustamente told The Associated Press. He said the closure follows a 40 percent drop in the use of slot machines over the past decade.
The former 24-hour casino, which opened in 1975, will likely be turned into a ballroom, he said in a phone interview.
"We now want to focus on areas where we've had good business: rooms and banquets," Bustamante said.
Puerto Rico's Hotel & Tourism Association said it is the seventh casino to close in the past five years on the island of 3.5 million people, which is entering its ninth year of recession and is struggling with a 12.6 percent unemployment rate.
Gambling taxes represent the majority of revenue for Puerto Rico's Tourism Company, which is responsible for promoting the island. A portion of that revenue also goes to the University of Puerto Rico, the island's largest public university.
"This is a significant impact," tourism association President Miguel Vega said in a statement.
Jason Rivera, president of a local gastronomy union, rejected the newest round of layoffs and said workers were unfairly paying for an economic crisis caused by the government.
"We are not going to remain with our arms crossed in the face of so much injustice," he said.
Government officials have said previous casino closures caused a $6 million drop in revenue.
Critics in part blame the closures on an estimated 45,000 illegal gambling machines that operate across the island, with the government seizing hundreds of machines in occasional raids. About 90 percent of casino clients in Puerto Rico are locals, not tourists, according to the Hotel & Tourism Association. There are currently 20 casinos now operating on the island.