Former Portuguese territory coins it in as casino for the Chinese


MACAU LETTER:The region, handed back to Bejing over a decade ago, has boomed and drawn tourist wealth as infrastructure develops

ON THE highest peak in Macau, a 20m white marble statue of Ah Ma, the goddess of the sea, wishes the Macanese health, happiness and prosperity. It is a gift from a Chinese benefactor – and its wish is already coming true.

In the harbour, the gift from Portugal – a 20m golden-topped statue of Kum Lam, the goddess of mercy – watches over the transformation of the former Portuguese territory.

The now Special Administrative Region of China is reaping the benefits of massive investment and sharing the profits of a new regime with average annual growth of 19 per cent in the past 10 years. The quaint and colourful Portuguese buildings are overshadowed by massive skyscrapers.

When the Portuguese handed Macau back to China in December 1999, there was less fanfare then when Hong Kong went through the same process two years previously. But taking a walk around the Handover Museum and seeing the beautiful gifts from the 56 regions of China, you realise that the handover was a long-planned and organised event; a prodigal returning.

Some 12½years later, a transformed Macau is happy, prosperous and certainly a lot wealthier. For a start, Macau is a bigger place: land reclamation has seen the peninsula and its two islands expand by thousands of hectares. Since 1983, it has expanded from 16.1sq km to 29.7sq km with the speed of reclamation increasing in the past 10 years and plans for further expansion.

The 200-year old lighthouse is now in the city centre, far from the sea.

Within Macau, getting around has improved with new roads and bridges and a rail system is under construction. Work on the longest bridge in the world from Hong Kong to Macau and Zhuhai city, 50km long, began in 2009. Through a series of bridges and tunnels, this will connect the three cities of the Pearl River Delta, making it a short car journey to probably what will be the richest region of China and give access to millions more visitors.

At present, most visitors arrive in Macau by bus from China or by high-speed ferry from Hong Kong. The border crossing at Zhuhai city opens from 7am to midnight every day, but will soon open 24 hours. Macau airport has limited flights from countries within South East Asia. Visitors are the reason for Macau’s huge wealth – tourists and specifically gamblers and shoppers.

Before the handover, Macau had one casino, the Lisboa, a favoured haunt of visitors from Hong Kong, but the 40-year monopoly ended in 2002 when new licences were issued.

Now there are more than 30 casinos, many of them famous names from Las Vegas, like MGM, the Venetian, Sands and Wynn Resorts.

The Venetian, a super-size version of the property in Las Vegas, is the largest casino in the world, 40-storeys high and over 10,000,000sq ft. It has 3,400 slot machines (known as “hungry tigers”) and 800 gambling tables, 3,000 bedrooms, two canals with gondolas, and 339 shops, including high-street names like Zara, Sisley, Juicy Girl, Mango, Lush, Body Shop, L’Occitane, Nokia and even a Manchester United shop. The Chinese love to shop, particularly for high-end brands. Luxury Scotch and brandy is on sale from €1,000 to €40,000 per bottle.

The newer casino resorts are built on a strip of reclaimed land that now joins the two islands of Macau, Taipa and Coloane – hence the name Cotai. There is Galaxy, City of Dreams and the new Starwood resort with three hotels of more than 1,000 rooms each, the Conrad, Holiday Inn and Sheraton. The original downtown area of Dynasty has the MGM, Wynn and spectacular Grand Lisboa casinos.

Each day thousands of giggling Chinese pour through the doors to admire the opulence, jostle politely to take photographs, shop for branded goods, and gamble.

And they love to gamble: the favourite game is baccarat and it is played by everyone. Men and women, puffing away, but not drinking, beg the cards to perform. Waitresses ply the players with Red Bull and fruit juices. But the real gambling goes on behind closed doors, where spectators are not welcome to watch the nouveau riche squander thousands.

At the end of the Cotai Strip on Coloane Island, charmingly rural in places, the government is trying to keep up a massive building campaign to house all the workers needed to keep the casinos operating.

Thirty-storey-high skyscrapers are taking shape in a new town that will house up to 50,000. Getting trained staff is one of the biggest problems for the casinos, and some are not operating at full capacity for that reason.

Revenue from the casinos last year was $33.5 billion (€25 billion), five times that of Las Vegas. The profits are so high that the government of Macau will give residents 11,000 patacas (about €1,000) each this year as part of the wealth redistribution scheme. Income tax is a meagre 3.5 per cent too, so you hear few complaints about the government. The one country/two systems approach seems to work for Macau.