Macau's newest casino opened its doors Sunday hoping to lure visitors from across Asia in the latest sign that gambling firms are betting large on continued growth at the world's biggest gaming hub.
The HK$14.9 billion ($1.9 billion) Galaxy Macau, which boasts 450 gaming tables, 1,100 slot machines, and more than 2,200 hotel rooms, hopes to tap the burgeoning gaming revenues being drawn by the former Portuguese colony.
Macau took a record $23.5 billion from gaming last year, about 58 percent higher than 2009 and outpacing the Las Vegas Strip at least four-fold, according to analysts.
The Galaxy's opening comes just days before the Sahara - an iconic Las Vegas hotel which has hosted everyone from Elvis Presley and Jerry Lewis to Frank Sinatra and the Beatles in the 1950s and 60s - closes its doors for the last time as the US gaming market continues to struggle.
"This is a golden opportunity for us to open Galaxy Macau, we are very confident," Francis Lui, vice chairman of hotel operator Galaxy Entertainment Group, told a news conference ahead of the ribbon-cutting ceremony.
"We hope it will welcome visitors not only from mainland China but those from Asia as well," he said, calling the opening Macau's "biggest event" this year.
Galaxy currently operates the luxury StarWorld Hotel and Casino plus several other casinos in the gaming boomtown, whose revenue is driven largely by the millions of mainland Chinese punters and high-rollers.
Gaming operators in the territory want to shed Macau's former image as Asia's seedy gambling den, rebranding the city as a Las Vegas-style family entertainment and resort centre.
Lying on a 550,000-square-metre plot on the glitzy Cotai strip, the Galaxy boasts three plush hotels, a rooftop wave pool and a man-made beach.
Galaxy is one of six firms licensed to operate casinos in Macau, which was handed back to Beijing in 1999 and remains the only Chinese city where casino gambling is allowed.
The city's no-frills gaming scene was monopolised by 89-year-old tycoon Stanley Ho for decades until it opened to foreign competition in 2002.
Since then, a stream of Las Vegas-based gaming companies have flooded into the southern Chinese city, lured by the massive market of gambling-mad visitors from nearby Hong Kong and mainland China.
Analysts said Galaxy's entry would spur further growth for Macau's gaming business.
"We believe that gaming revenue in Macau could grow about 25 percent or more in 2011, a slower pace than last year because the industry is growing off a much higher base," ratings agency Standard & Poor's said in a recent note.
"Much of the increase in revenue in 2011 is predicated on economic growth in China," it said, adding that over 80 percent of visitors in 2010 came from China and Hong Kong.
The Chinese government has worried about the vast sums of money flowing into the city's economy, while Macau officials have voiced concern about its gambling-dependent economy.
But growth has continued even as regional rivals including Singapore open glitzy new casinos to grab a chunk of the massive Asian market, which some experts predict will eclipse the US gaming sector in a few years.