Gambling city Macau marks 10 years of Chinese rule

AP News
Posted: Dec 20, 2009 3:53 AM

Macau celebrated its 10th anniversary of Chinese rule Sunday, a decade marked by the extraordinary transformation of the once seedy Portuguese colony into a glitzy international gambling capital.

But leaders stressed the need to lessen the local economy's reliance on casinos even as they commemorated the success that has helped this southern Chinese enclave surpass Las Vegas as the world's most lucrative gambling market.

"In the next five years, we will actively promote the diverse economic development of Macau," said the territory's new leader, Fernando Chui, after being sworn in by Chinese President Hu Jintao.

The tiny territory, best known as a dingy casino town in the past half-century of its 400-year history as a Portuguese colony, returned to Chinese rule on Dec. 20, 1999, as its economy was shriveling and warring Chinese gangs were frightening away tourists.

Since then, violence has subsided and the economy has exploded. The one place in China where gambling is legal, Macau boomed after the government broke up a local company's long-standing monopoly seven years ago and started welcoming U.S. gambling powerhouses such as Wynn Resorts, Las Vegas Sands and MGM Mirage.

As the operators built one flashy casino resort after another, gamblers showed up by the millions _ the overwhelming majority of them from mainland China _ and profits surged. By 2006, the enclave less than one-sixth the size of Washington, D.C., had hauled in more revenue than the Las Vegas Strip.

"If you said 10 years ago that Macau would have accumulated billions of billions of new capital dedicated to one industry and thrived like this, few would have believed you," said Jonathan Galaviz, an independent gaming and tourism consultant. "Now it's clear Macau is an economic success story."

Sensitive to criticism that its newfound wealth has not benefited everyone, both Chui and Hu emphasized the importance of diversifying the local economy.

Hundreds of demonstrators marched through the city's streets after Sunday's ceremony, calling for greater economic equity, an end to corruption and the right to elect the territory's leader, currently appointed by Beijing and rubber-stamped by a 300-member committee in Macau.

Macau saw several relatively large worker protests in 2007, with locals upset about the influx of immigrant labor and corruption. In 2008, a former transportation and public works secretary was sentenced to 27 years in jail for taking millions of dollars in bribes.

Chui made scant mention of the casino industry in his inaugural speech except to say he would step up its oversight. He did not elaborate.

"While we strengthen the regulation of the gambling industry, we will also support the advancement and transformation of the convention, logistics, cultural and traditional industries," Chui said.

Hu urged Macau to maintain a transparent government and pay attention to the "comprehensiveness, coordination and sustainability" of its economy.

Macau's casino sector began cooling toward the end of 2008 as the economic crisis took hold and Chinese visa restrictions slowed the influx of gamblers. Revenues swooned, multibillion-dollar casino projects were halted and thousands of workers were laid off.

But the casinos, thanks largely to the strength of mainland China's stimulus-primed economy, are teeming once again. In October, Macau posted its best month ever, raking in $1.59 billion in gambling revenues. That was about double Nevada's $800.3 million take during the period, according to government figures.

Macau's industry faces an emerging threat from Singapore, where two major casinos are expected to open in the coming months and could siphon off the big-betting VIP gamblers who make up the majority of local casino revenues.

To help Macau better compete, Chui may re-examine and ease the local gaming tax, analysts say.

A former culture minister from one of the dominant local families, the 52-year-old Chui isn't expected to change key policies governing the number of casino licenses and tables.

The man who once held Macau's casino monopoly, Stanley Ho, made his first public appearance in months at Chui's inauguration. The 87-year-old billionaire had undergone surgery in August but did not disclose what the procedure was for. Ho left Sunday's ceremony in a wheelchair, pushed by his son, Lawrence, also a gambling executive.

Both Macau and Hong Kong have separate governments under China's "one country, two systems" approach. Unlike neighboring Hong Kong, which has a thriving pro-democracy opposition, Macau has traditionally been strongly pro-China and has little in the way of political dissent.

On Saturday, it turned away a Hong Kong opposition legislator and several other activists who planned to stage a protest demanding direct elections for Hong Kong. Two Hong Kong journalists were also barred. The Macau government had no comment.