MACAO — Maria Helena de Senna Fernandes has spent most of the last three decades coming up with new ideas to lure more tourists to this speck of a city across the mouth of the Pearl River Delta from Hong Kong.
Now, the issue for the director of the Macao Government Tourism Office is that it often feels like there are too many visitors.
Last year, nearly 36 million people visited Macao, already one of Asia’s most densely populated cities. With 670,900 residents packed into just 32.9 sq. km, officials are pondering imposing a “tourist tax” to ease the crowding.
“Now my job is to not get so many tourists to come to Macao,” she said in May, only half-joking.
But Macao is not just questioning how many tourists it can accept. The city’s main attractions — its 41 casinos — are also facing a reckoning of their own.
Macao is preparing to elect a new chief executive this summer who will be charged with deciding on the future of the city’s gaming industry, the largest on the planet with gross winnings last year of 302.85 billion patacas ($37.5 billion). The concessions under which six companies run the city’s gambling houses are set to expire in June 2022, midway through the next leader’s term.
All of this has prompted a general stocktaking of what has been achieved in Macao since its casino monopoly was broken up in 2002 — and what has not. Back then, the vision was to bring in American expertise to catalyze a Las Vegas-like transformation that would turn the city from a seedy gambling town dominated by organized crime into a gleaming convention capital featuring top-class restaurants, shops, art and performances.
On the surface, the transformation has been successful: Macao’s glittering Cotai district of high-rise casino resorts bears a striking resemblance to the Las Vegas Strip. But attempts to broaden Macao’s clientele have been disappointing. Cirque du Soleil, Madonna and restaurateur Wolfgang Puck have all come to Macao, but visitors are still spending most of their time and money at the gaming tables.
ome say the foreign operators — Las Vegas Sands, Wynn Resorts and MGM Resorts International — have not delivered fully on their promises. This is a billion-dollar issue for the three American casino companies, amid U.S.-China trade tensions and rising competition from other Asian markets.
“Today it is clear that various efforts and attempts to diversify the economy made over the years have for the most part failed,” wrote Jorge Godinho, a gaming law professor at the University of Macau in a recent academic study. “Macao is nowadays totally dependent on the gaming industry.”
No unemployment, but lots of traffic
Back when the concessions were issued in 2002, ending the 40-year monopoly enjoyed by billionaire Stanley Ho Hung-sun, Macao was drawing 10 million visitors a year and generating $2 billion in gross gaming revenues. The city had returned to Chinese control just a couple years before, following four and half centuries of Portuguese colonial rule. Macao was facing an uncertain economic future, with its manufacturing base on its last legs and potential visitors still wary after a pre-handover gang war.
The new casino operators began opening their doors in 2004, and since then Macao’s economy has rocketed on a wave of baccarat betting by mainland Chinese. That 15-year boom has made Macao the wealthiest place in Asia in terms of economic output per capita on a purchasing power parity basis, according to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook.
The concessionaires, which originally committed to invest a combined $1.5 billion, have powered Macao’s gross domestic product growth by pouring in $35.6 billion, according to equity research company Union Gaming. Even with the future of the concessions uncertain, the operators have another $17.6 billion in projects underway in the city.
As a result of this boom, unemployment has virtually vanished and permanent residents enjoy free health care and 15 years of free schooling. They also receive an annual check from the government: Last year’s payment came to 10,000 patacas a person.