Viva Macau! Asia's gambling capital

Casinos in the former Portuguese enclave are booming thanks to punters from the mainland. And now the big boys are getting in on the game, it could soon rival Las Vegas

The dice are rolling hot on the tables of what was once a sleepy Portuguese colony. With millions of mainland Chinese high rollers arriving every year, developers in Macau are racing to turn the former enclave into Asia's glittering gambling capital.

The stakes are high. At the baccarat table of one casino, a middle-aged Chinese woman shrugs off the loss of £6,000 on a single game, tipping her cigarette ash and restacking her chips. She gets busy again. There is a slight smell of sweat in the air.

Macau, the only place in China where casinos are legal, is poised to overtake the Las Vegas strip in gambling revenues thanks to a huge influx of cash from the mainland. "Macau over the next few years is going to develop into something unique," says Ciaran Carruthers, the senior vice president of Galaxy Resort, a Hong Kong casino company. He is shouting to be heard over the sound of a band on the gala opening night of the Grand Waldo Hotel & Casino.

The Grand Waldo is a large casino with 168 tables and 334 slot machines, but it also has restaurants, shops, a luxury hotel, spa, nightclubs, a fitness centre, a swimming pool, a children's playground and, inevitably for a casino targeted at the Chinese, karaoke facilities.

There is no question where the punters come from. The discerning ear can pick out the distinctive dialects of Fujian, Beijing and Shanghai - this is a playground for mainland Chinese gamblers.

It feels as if a casino is being built on every bit of land in Macau, making one fear for the elegant ruins of churches built by 16th-century Portuguese missionaries. Where no land is available, it is taken from the sea. The Grand Waldo is merely the first to open on the Cotai strip, a £13bn neon avenue of casinos, hotels and shops on 200 acres of reclaimed land that connects Taipa and Coloane, two small islands off the southern Chinese peninsula.

Elsewhere on the strip, beneath scores of cranes, armies of hard-hatted workers are putting the finishing touches on the Venetian Macau, a 39-storey replica of the Doge's Palace in Venice, with a huge statue of the archangel Gabriel on top and 3,000 suites inside.

The strip will raise Macau's current tally of 12,000 hotel rooms to 54,000 in 10 years. The backers of the scheme, the single biggest tourist investment anywhere, are betting it will steal the gaming jackpot from Vegas.

Macau generated £3bn in casino-gambling revenues, just slightly behind the Las Vegas strip's turnover of £3.2bn. But where Las Vegas beats Macau hands-down is on non-gaming income. In Vegas, visitors stay a lot longer, spend a lot more but gamble a lot less.

Many of the 19 million visitors lured to Macau's balmy precincts are day-trippers, or gamble their way through their visit, or stay in a massage parlour. Nearly three quarters of all money spent in Macau goes on gambling, leaving just £12 per visitor for other activities. In Las Vegas, gaming makes up just 41 per cent of the spend, with the rest, an average of £128, going on hotels, food, shopping and entertainment. Cotai's promoters hope the strip will solve the conundrum of how to make people stay longer. By injecting Vegas-style glitz, they aim to overcome the reputation for seediness and gang warfare that Macau has developed.

In recent years, corrupt officials have gambled away billions in the casinos of Macau, and Beijing is trying to stop this as part of a broader crackdown on graft. It won't be the first. Chinese authorities have fought a long battle against the national obsession with gambling. During the Song dynasty between 960 and 1279, they even cut off gamblers' hands. Yet today, the Chinese still bet on everything from fighting crickets to the Grand National at Aintree.

Casinos officially account for 80 per cent of economic activity in Macau, though the true proportion is probably higher. It became a centre for gambling during the 442 years that it was run by the Portuguese. Returned to China in 1999, it is now a special administrative region, under a regime similar to China's "one country, two systems" policy for Hong Kong. The law requires, for example, that only people from Macau or those with a special permit may work in the casinos, a boost to local employment.

The king of gambling in Macau is the octogenarian tycoon Stanley Ho, whose company, SJM, opened the Casino Lisboa, a 12-storey, circular tower, on 11 June 1970. With it came the 24-hour gaming experience that marked a revolution in gambling in Asia and earned Mr Ho almost mythical status in the city.

A good 80 per cent of gambling revenues in Macau flow through locally owned casinos, most of them run by Mr Ho. The Lisboa is a labyrinthine casino, still smoky and slightly run-down, and not as full as it used to be, but the punters are sweating and spending money. The Lisboa flies VIPs to its high-roller rooms by helicopter, and people can win or lose three or four million pounds in a day. Legend has it that one punter lost £67m in a single game of baccarat.

Walking the malls and circling the restaurants of the Lisboa are scores of legally tolerated prostitutes, many of whom live in the casino's hotel. Everyone gambles in Macau, even the sex workers. They cast lots to see who gets to patrol the prime public areas and who has to wait for clients in their rooms.

Looming over the old Lisboa is the emerging skeleton of the Grand Lisboa, a 44-storey building shaped like a lotus flower, Mr Ho's answer to the foreign pretenders who have challenged his domination of the market. His monopoly ended in 2002, when the government began offering concessions to outside investors.

Two years later, the Sands Macau opened. Its owners claim it is the world's biggest casino - 740 tables on 230,000 square feet on three floors, with more than 1,250 slot machines.The scene on the high-roller floor of the Sands, with 51 rooms for the big spenders, is very different from the Lisboa. Its main gambling hall is open and spacious, while the Lisboa's rooms are clearly built for the no-frills, hard-core gambler. It is so successful that it paid for itself in its first year.

The men who built Las Vegas are looking to Macau to keep the roulette wheels spinning and the former enclave is turning into a battle ground for two of the gaming industry's legends - Sheldon Adelson of Las Vegas Sands and gambling mogul Steve Wynn, both of whom have recently built huge casinos in Macau and are driving the development of the Cotai strip.

The verbal sparring matches between them are fun. Mr Adelson says Mr Wynn's new development is a non-event, while Mr Wynn compared the Sands Macau to a Wal-Mart store, somewhere no high-roller would ever go. Although rivals, they quietly need each other to do well; if one loses money, so will the other. This is not poker.

Mr Adelson expects to control 60 per cent of Macau's gaming market by 2010, and predicts that gaming revenues will rise to £7.5bn a year in the same period. Revenues from Sands Macau jumped 53 per cent in the second quarter of this year, accounting for two thirds of the firm's total income.

Jets of fire and water from a large fountain, and a recording of Frank Sinatra singing "Luck Be A Lady", announced the arrival of the Wynn Macau, the latest landmark in central Macau when Mr Wynn opened the £640m hotel and gaming complex earlier this month. It's not just the fireworks that are flash; An original Renoir sits behind the reception desk and Chanel, Prada, Christian Dior, Fendi and Louis Vuitton line the shopping arcade of the 24-storey Hotel; statues of camels lope through the swimming pools.

The hotel has 210 gaming tables and 380 slot machines, and a room starts at £200 a night, rising to £1,450 for a suite. "This place will go profitable tomorrow, on its first day. It'll take that long," Mr Wynn said at the launch ceremony, wearing a T-shirt proclaiming: "Knowledge destroys Fear".

Mr Wynn's company has a 50-acre plot on Cotai while Las Vegas Sands Corp is building a complex and luring several five-star hotel operators, such as Four Seasons, Hilton, Marriott, Sheraton and Shangri-La. Also under construction is the City of Dreams, which bills itself as the world's first underwater casino.

"In Macau, the invitation has been rather one-dimensional - just gambling," says Mr Wynn, who, as head of Mirage Resorts, transformed Las Vegas before selling the company and starting from scratch with Wynn Resorts. "Now the invitation is being enriched at a pace not seen in any other destination in the world. The speed of development is dizzying."

Mr Carruthers says that even if the developers succeed in getting people to stay a bit longer away from the tables, gambling will always be central to the former colony's appeal.

"The Cotai strip will be uniquely Macau and while retaining its huge allure as a gaming destination, will become more attractive to people in the region seeking non-gaming facilities as well," says Mr Carruthers.

"However, I still feel even those that come here for the hotels, fine dining, retail, conventions etc, will still find the gaming too huge an attraction to ignore," he says.

China is central to the expansion of Macau and companies such as Galaxy Resort have their sights firmly set on the mainland Chinese market. "How Macau changes and develops will be closely linked to the change and development in China," Mr Carruthers says. "Right now, most of our players are from the middle and lower classes in China, and it is the middle class that will drive growth here. This is true for much of the region and as the middle classes become ever more affluent and have the means to travel, Macau will be an obvious and convenient choice for many of them."

But gaming and tourism experts say Macau also needs to attract punters from across Asia, rather than concentrating on the Chinese market. Already there are signs that Japanese, Koreans, and punters from south-east Asia are coming to have a flutter.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules
filmReview: The Rock is a muscular Davy Crockett in this preposterous film, says Geoffrey Macnab
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmA cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Sport
Louis van Gaal watches over Nani
transfers
Arts and Entertainment
Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Lavinia, William Houston as Titus Andronicus and Dyfan Dwyfor as Lucius
theatreThe Shakespeare play that proved too much for more than 100 people
News
exclusivePunk icon Viv Albertine on Sid Vicious, complacent white men, and why free love led to rape
Sport
New Real Madrid signing James Rodríguez with club president Florentino Perez
transfersColombian World Cup star completes £63m move to Spain
Arts and Entertainment
Stir crazy: Noel Fielding in 'Luxury Comedy 2: Tales from Painted Hawaii'
comedyAs ‘Luxury Comedy’ returns, Noel Fielding on why mainstream success scares him and what the future holds for 'The Boosh'
Life and Style
Flow chart: Karl Landsteiner discovered blood types in 1900, yet scientists have still not come up with an explanation for their existence
lifeAll of us have one. Yet even now, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Arts and Entertainment
'Weird Al' Yankovic, or Alfred Matthew, at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival Screening of
musicHis latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do our experts think he’s missed out?
Travel
Hotel Tour d’Auvergne in Paris launches pay-what-you-want
travelIt seems fraught with financial risk, but the policy has its benefits
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe best children's books for this summer
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Teaching Assistant

£12024: Randstad Education Leeds: Teaching Assistant September 2014 start - te...

Physics Teacher

£130 - £162 per day + UPS: Randstad Education Hull: Physics Teacher Long Term ...

IT Technician (1st/2nd line support) - Leatherhead, Surrey

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Technician (1st/2nd line support)...

Primary Teacher EYFS, KS1 and KS2

£85 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Preston: Randstad Education are urgentl...

Day In a Page

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

Honesty box hotels

Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn