Macau rising as Asia's casino capital
BY TIM JOHNSON
Knight Ridder News Service
MACAU - Once a backwater for hardcore gamblers, the former Portuguese colony of Macau is rising fast as Asia's entertainment and casino capital.
Some now call Macau the ''Las Vegas of the East,'' and Macau's gaming revenues are on par with those of the Las Vegas Strip.
Macau, however, is growing even faster than Las Vegas. It's on the threshold of a gaming boom, with more than a dozen casinos and resorts on the drawing boards or under construction, the result of a 2001 decision to open its doors to foreign casino operators. Two years later, mainland authorities agreed to let visitors cross the border more freely.
Macau's first U.S.-operated casino, the Sands Macau, opened in 2004. This autumn, a second U.S. casino and 600-room hotel, Wynn Resorts Macau, will debut. The $1 billion MGM Grand Macau will follow in 2007. The U.S. operators are bringing panache and entertainment, and they hope to turn Macau into a hot convention destination.
Macau drew 18.7 million tourists last year, more than the country of Germany, and plans to lure 35 million a year by the end of the decade, about what Las Vegas gets now.
''It is on the cusp of getting launched,'' said David J. Green, the director of gaming practice in Macau for the accounting and consulting giant PriceWaterhouseCoopers.
Macau, a port established 450 years ago by Portuguese traders and Catholic missionaries, has long been overshadowed by Hong Kong, the former British colony that's an hour-long ferry ride to the east. Producing little revenue of its own, tiny Macau legalized gambling in 1847.
In the decade before Portugal handed Macau back to China in 1999, the enclave was plagued by casino-linked gangs avenging debts with daylight killings.
Macau's monopolycontrolled casinos, run for decades by Hong Kong gambling tycoon Stanley Ho, were havens for VIPs in smoke-filled rooms. Signs reminded gamblers not to spit on the floor. Most customers came from Hong Kong. A few trickled in from China.
A series of factors after Macau's 1999 handover to China led to the boom. The liberalization of the casino sector coincided with a crippling SARS epidemic in southern China in 2003. To help Hong Kong's suffering economy, mainland authorities relaxed travel restrictions to Hong Kong and Macau. Chinese began to flood across the border. Casinos are illegal on the mainland, yet China's 1.3 billion citizens itch to get rich quickly and travel outside traditional borders.