For the last 50 years, people from all over the world flocked to a small casino town in the middle of an American desert. Nowadays, a bigger flock descends on a small peninsula connected to China. While Fabulous Las Vegas will always maintain its drawing power, Mighty Macau has become the biggest gambling destination in the world. And here’s why.
The history of Macau dates back to the Qin dynasty (221-206 BC). The first Chinese inhabitants of Macau were people fleeing from invading Mongols. For centuries Macau existed primarily as a fishing village community. It wasn’t until the 16th century that Macau began to develop commercially, starting with the arrival of Portuguese traders. What started off as a trading port for the Portuguese slowly became a jewel in Portugal’s colonial crown, but not without its share of disputes over the years.
Several Dutch raids and opium wars later, China ceded the territory of Macau to perpetual occupation by Portugal, in exchange for trade taxation and other forms of customs taxes. Later, Japan occupied Macau during World War II, America bombed it, then paid Portugal millions of dollars for the devastation.
Gambling has been legal in Macau since 1850, when it was established as a means to boost sagging revenues in the region. Initially, 200 Fan Tan houses (Chinese gambling houses) were established, and each house paid the Macau government a portion of its income in taxes and licensing fees. It wasn’t long before one group of businessmen held a monopoly on all gambling activity in Macau. But it wasn’t until 1962 that Macau really began drawing international attention.
Hong Kong billionaire Stanley Ho and his company Sociedade de Turismo e Diversões de Macau, or STDM, held the longest running monopoly on gambling activities during Macau’s colonial period. The company introduced Western games to Macau’s gambling houses, and partnered with Hong Kong interests to develop a modernized marine transport network between the two countries. This resulted in millions of gambling tourists from Hong Kong visiting Macau. In addition to playing Chinese classics like Sic bo and Fan Tan, visitors could now play roulette, blackjack, baccarat, keno, and slot machines. Macau is also home to greyhound racing, sports betting, and lotteries. But it wouldn’t be until 2007 that gamblers could play poker in Macau.
In 1999, after 400 years of colonial rule, Portugal ceded Macau to the People’s Republic of China, where it became a special administrative region (SAR) of China. This transfer spelled the end of the Portuguese Empire and colonialism in Asia. Macau maintained its autonomy from Chinese law, allowing it to maintain its own currency, elect its own officials, and of course, to continue gambling without limitations. According to the handover agreement, Macau’s SAR status will continue for at least 50 years.
The monopoly on gambling ended in 2002, and additional casino operating concessions were granted to Wynn Resorts, Las Vegas Sands, and Galaxy Entertainment Group (MGM Mirage and Pansy Ho Chiu-king). Soon thereafter, with the introduction of the first megaresort casinos, the Macau landscape changed forever. Among the first of these gambling skyscrapers was The Sands Macao, a 229,000 square feet casino with a 289-suite hotel, owned by Sheldon Adelson’s Las Vegas Sands.
The decision to go global invited competitive bidding from potential investors. Naturally, the big players of Las Vegas were eager to stake their casino claims in the heart of the exponentially-expanding Asian economies. Thus began one of the largest and most expensive construction projects in casino history.
Macau measured only 11.6 square kilometers in 1912, but by 2010, the total land area measured nearly 30 square kilometers. Land expansion projects connecting the Macau peninsula to the small islands of Coloane and Taipa allowed for the addition of huge casino complexes. The Sands Macao was the first in a series of megaresorts to appear on the Macau skyline.
Going by the tried-and-true ‘bigger is better’ model popularized by Las Vegas casinos, prominent Vegas investors went all in when betting on Macau. But it wasn’t enough for casino mogul Sheldon Adelson to build a replica of the watery city of Venice on the dry sands of the Nevada desert. After building The Venetian Las Vegas, Adelson went on to build the largest casino in the world, the Venetian Macao. Measuring in at 10,500,000 square feet and 39 storeys, it is the largest single structure hotel in Asia, and the 7th largest building in the world by floor area. From the Las Vegas Sands to the Asian islands, The Venetian casinos are now global legends.
But the casinos in Macau are not merely Asian knockoffs. Some of the most striking buildings in Macau are masterpieces of original design. The uniquely-designed Grand Lisboa casino is the tallest building in the region, standing at 846 feet. Construction was completed in 2008, and the building’s striking appearance defines the Macau skyline. This enormous, golden, glass-and-steel lotus blossom is the signature piece of architecture in Macau.
Macau has been dubbed ‘Monte Carlo of the East’ or ‘Las Vegas of Asia’ due to its growing status as a gambling mecca, alongside various Las Vegas sister casinos. But the similarities end there, as Macau’s income has dwarfed that of the entire state of Nevada as of 2010. Not to be outdone, Las Vegas casino moguls hold sway in Macau, and you can see them all lined up on the Cotai Strip, the Asian version of the famous Las Vegas Strip. The Cotai section of Macau is part of a built-up land connecting smaller islands to the Macau peninsula and the mainland.
The Cotai Strip is home to the largest casino in the world, The Venetian Macao, along with other Sands-owned megaresorts like Sands Cotai Central, The Plaza, and the Parisian Macao, which comes complete with a half-scale version of the Eiffel Tower on its grounds, just like the Paris Las Vegas resort. Other Vegas casino conglomerates to throw their hat in the ring include Wynn Resorts and MGM Resorts International.
Las Vegas has Macau beat by the sheer number of casinos, with 135 compared to 49. But many of the Vegas casinos are smaller in size, and every one of the Macau casinos is a gigantic megaresort. With more than 30,000 hotel rooms, Macau nearly doubles the number of Vegas hotel rooms.
But one of the biggest advantages Macau holds over Vegas is its access to a vast number of potential gamblers in China. Just as Las Vegas benefits from neighboring California’s juggernaut economy, Macau benefits from its proximity to the economic powerhouse that is modern China. Most of Macau’s revenue is currently from Chinese visitors, who bring the lion’s share of wealth into Macau. And the Chinese visitors spend more on an average Macau visit than Vegas visitors do.
Macau also benefits from special gambling junkets arranged for the exclusive purpose of bringing in high rollers from China. These specialized VIP casino tours are arranged and paid for by tour organizers with exclusive casino contracts in Macau. The tours cater specifically to the high roller VIP market, and include luxury suites and transport by private jet.
As developers continue to develop Macau as the most extravagant gambling destination in the world, a bright future awaits investors, visitors, and local residents alike.