Macau — The world’s busiest casino town is straining to handle the affections of the world’s largest population.
By the boatload, gamblers gripping Chinese passports jostle off ferries and cram, sardinelike, into a customs building in this once-sleepy former Portuguese colony on China’s coast. They line up, hundreds deep on a weekend morning, for an entry stamp. Then they line up again for scarce taxis or catch shuttle buses into a town bristling with new casinos, fountains and resorts.
“I think it’s become overwhelming,” said David Green, a casino expert for accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers in Macau. “The infrastructure isn’t really cut out to deal with that.”
On a patch of land just one-sixth as large as Washington, D.C., Macau surpassed sprawling Las Vegas last year in gaming revenues, thanks to a growing deluge of mainland Chinese tourists. They are transforming this place faster than imperialism and organized crime ever did.
Indeed, the city that caused W.H. Auden in the 1930s to despair that “nothing serious can happen here” is being reborn as an economic tiger. Even compared to mainland China, with its skyrocketing growth of more than 10 percent per year, Macau stands out: Its economy grew last year by 30 percent.
But with more dizzying expansion already under way, the speed and scale of change are testing Macau’s capacity to adapt.
“It’s been crazy,” said Paulo Azevedo, who has lived in Macau for 15 years and is publisher of the magazine Macau Business. “We used to have this sort of Mediterranean, laid-back quality of life,” he added.
Macau comprises a peninsula and two islands located one hour’s ferry ride from Hong Kong. For the past four centuries, Portugal ran the territory as a freewheeling bazaar and imperial outpost, trading silk, sandalwood, porcelain, opium, arms and other goods, all with a spirit of unabashed seediness. The colony was a “weed from Catholic Europe,” as Auden put it.
The expansion of gaming in the 1960s didn’t help. Macau became known for corruption and gangland violence, a demimonde inhabited by figures such as kingpin “Broken Tooth,” finally locked up in 1999. By the 1990s, Macau’s casinos, long a monopoly held by billionaire Stanley Ho, had slipped so far that the crown jewel, the Hotel Lisboa, struck one visitor as having “the ambience of a minimum-security prison.”
Macau returned to Chinese control in 1999, as a semiautonomous region akin to Hong Kong. Beijing’s handpicked leaders embarked on an overhaul, investing in infrastructure and opening the gaming industry to competition. The first foreign-owned casino opened in 2004: the Sands Macao, owned by Las Vegas tycoon Sheldon Adelson.
As luck would have it, an obscure immigration change gave the Sands a blessed start: In 2003, after the SARS virus dampened tourism, China experimented with allowing its citizens to visit Macau and Hong Kong without mandating that they be part of a tour group. The Chinese flooded to Macau, the closest place to gamble from the mainland, where it is illegal.
Within a single year, the Sands Macao had paid for its own construction. By the end of last year, tourism had nearly quadrupled in a decade to 27 million people annually, according to figures released last week. More than half of them — and by far the fastest-growing segment — are from mainland China.
For a growing Chinese middle class still getting used to foreign travel, Macau packages can be had for less than $90 a night, including airfare from Beijing to Hong Kong. Chinese travel agents say the law doesn’t let them peddle gambling-focused trips, so they finesse it.
“We never put ‘visiting casinos’ on the tour schedule,” said Guo Yu, a marketing manager at China Comfort Travel in Beijing. “Nor is a tour guide allowed to lead tourists to a casino, but if tourists personally want to go to casinos, we can do nothing about it.”
For local businesses in Macau, the boom is not trouble-free. Restaurants and shops face rapidly rising rents and a labor shortage. The resident population numbers only half a million, and casinos can afford to pay the most. Meanwhile, congestion on downtown sidewalks already threatens to lend Macau’s charming plazas and colonial streets the grace of a shopping mall.
There are other signs of growing pains. A group of more than 100 mainland tourists from a gritty industrial city sparked a riot last summer, claiming that their guides were forcing them to spend too much on shopping and gambling.