American gambling magnate, Sheldon Adelson who is head of the Las Vegas Sands Corporation has dubbed Macau the “Las Vegas of the Far East”. Macau on the western side of the Pearl River Delta was a Portuguese colony, rented to Portugal as a trading port by the Chinese Empire. Sovereignty was transferred back to China in late 1999 and by 2002 had become one of the world’s richest cities. Gambling has been legal in Macau since the 1850s and, although Western style casinos were introduced in the 20th Century, only Chinese games were played, the most popular of which is Fan-Tan which is similar to roulette.
Gambling tourism across Asia is now Macau’s most important source of revenue, making up 50% of the economy. Large foreign casinos from Las Vegas and Australia led to Macau overtaking the Las Vegas Strip in gaming revenues in 2007 and Macau is now known as the “Monte Carlo of the Orient”. The arrival of the American casino operators who answer to regulators back home has led to the Asian casinos taking a much more professional stance, with companies such as M88 Vietnam and Sbobet growing in stature, both insterestingly enough being based in the Philippines.
Although gambling is forbidden on the Chinese mainland, the Chinese love to gamble and the government allows the casinos to operate in Macau and its close neighbour, Hong Kong, both of which enjoy a degree of legal autonomy. Businessmen and Communist Party officials pour in from the mainland while the casinos have also attracted high rollers from across the world.
While Macau is the most famous destination for gamblers in Asia, project developers in other parts of Asia, such as Singapore, Vietnam and Thailand have scrambled to develop integrated resorts that attract gamblers to this part of the world. Macau’s success has led to rival developers wanting a piece of the action and there are new casino project popping up all over the region, from the Philippines to Japan and even Australia and Russia’s Far East. The billionaire developers and politicians behind these projects believe they can lure the Chinese high rollers away from Macau and into the new casinos.
China’s new leaders have been cracking down on official corruption and the flaunting of wealth, leading gamblers to consider new venues beyond the reach of China’s leadership. Gamblers from the mainland make up 60% of the revenues of Macau’s large casinos so poaching of these big spenders is an attractive option for junketeers. However, Macau, unlike rival destinations is physically attached to the mainland by a peninsula which means it’s easy and cheap to reach by land, appealing to the mass market of low rollers.