There’s a new champion in the world of high-stakes gambling.
Macau recently passed Las Vegas as the gambling capital of the
world. Macau’s 23 casinos posted $568.2 million in revenue, $19.6
million more than Las Vegas’s take, which was generated by 30
And what appeared to be a long time coming has happened in only
a few short years.
For decades, gambling in Macau, a sleepy former Portuguese
enclave about 40 miles from Hong Kong on China’s southern coast,
was controlled by Hong Kong billionaire Stanley Ho, who owned most
of the casinos, including The Lisboa, his flagship property.
But in 1999, the colony was handed over to China, and in 2002,
the government broke Ho’s monopoly by allowing others to bid for
gaming licenses. Enter two high-rolling entrepreneurs from Las
Vegas: Steve Wynn, owner of the 50-story Wynn Las Vegas, and
Sheldon Adelson, his Vegas rival. Both announced ambitious plans to
build massive casinos in Macau, and the results have been
In 2004, Adelson opened the Sands, a $240 million mecca for
gamblers with 300 tables and 500 slot machines that grossed $36
million in its first 10 weeks of operation. Such was the lure of
Las Vegas-style gambling (gambling is forbidden on mainland China
itself), that the Sands’ three massive glass doors were torn off
their hinges by the crush of customers waiting to get in that first
And this past September, Wynn opened his crescent-shaped version
of a Las Vegas casino, named, appropriately enough, Wynn Macau. The
$1.2 billion hotel-casino complex, luxurious by any standard,
offers six gourmet restaurants, a shopping esplanade, a health club
But that’s just the beginning. Both Wynn and Adelson can build
an unlimited number of casino-resorts, and Adelson has already
lined up investors for a strip of twenty, 3,000-room hotel-casinos,
costing an estimated $12 billion, including a $1 billion recreation
of the Venetian in Las Vegas, now under construction.
“The market is so huge and the opportunity is so incredible that
we don’t think we can build enough resort capacity to fill the
market,” said one hotel executive working in Macau.
A Las Vegas Model
Both Wynn and Adelson (and a half-dozen or so other companies
that are planning hotel-casino complexes in Macau) are following
the “Las Vegas model.” That is, they are trying not just to be just
gambling destinations, but also entertainment and family
To lure non-gamblers, Macau has spruced up its image. Massive
high-rises crowd the traditional colonial buildings, although
enough of old Macau is still left. The new convention and
entertainment center boasts seating for up to 1,600 and several
restaurants and a 500-seat movie theater.
For the truly adventurous, the center’s 1,109-foot tower
features a “skywalk,” where, for $75, visitors can walk around the
rim of the building (held in place with a harness) or actually jump
in a controlled, freefall to the bottom of the complex.
“Macau can no longer be just a gambling den,” said one industry
analyst, adding that the companies developing properties in Macau
“are bringing a sense of entertainment for the family as well as
With China’s 1.2 billion people and other Asian countries just a
short plane ride away, the risk that Wynn, Adelson and others are
taking seems worth the gamble. Or, as Adelson once said, “There is
Macau, the only place in Asia with full-fledged legalized
gambling, sits within a five-hour flight of 3 billion people nearly
half the world’s population. Las Vegas, by contrast, is the same
distance from only 450 million people.
Visitors arriving by air pass through Macau’s modern airport,
which was built in 1995 and now services 14 regional and
international carriers. Flights connect through South Korea, Japan
and several cities in China, with EVA offering direct service from
West Coast gateways Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle through
Taipei (see sidebar). For visitors to Hong Kong, Macau is a
one-hour hydrofoil ride away.
“Many agents are coupling [Macau] with Southeast Asia trips to
add a completely different cultural aspect,” said Al Merschen, a
spokesman for the destination. “And with Macau becoming a hub for
low-cost carriers around Asia, it is really becoming a focal point
for the region.
“Also, while a lot of attention is given to the gaming sector,
agents should really sell the World Heritage factor of Macau, which
is very different compared to Vegas,” Merschen said.
Most travelers on EVA know it as “economy plus,” but the proper
name for this service is Elite Class. First introduced in 1992 on
the carrier’s 747s, it is now featured on all of the fleet’s 777
and is a class of seating halfway between Economy and Business.
Among the amenities: Satellite wireless telephone, 110-volt power
socket and high-definition touch screens for video on demand. The
cost is surprising an upgrade from Economy on a recent flight from
Macau was only $641.