25 October 2016
In low season, Macau is less overrun by tourists.  Photo: CNSA
In low season, Macau is less overrun by tourists. Photo: CNSA

Macau a lovely city in low season

A wait of one minute for a taxi, much fewer people on Senado Square, and food that’s still delicious — what else can we ask for in the casino city?

This week I took a day off in Macau, which is experiencing a steep decline in mainland tourists on the eve of the golden week holidays at the beginning of next month.

It was a very relaxing trip, because I felt like the city is back to what it was like before the casino boom.

There is no better time to be in Macau than in the off-peak season, because you can walk around the city with ease, something that became rare in the past few years, when gamblers, stock speculators and others flocked to its casinos.

But all this changed after Beijing continued to tighten up its antigraft campaign, recently cooperation with Macau’s graft-busters in an effort to trace flows of illicit money across the border.

These initiatives have scared off many mainlanders, who are reluctant to cross the border for fear of the unfavorable optics.

That has put Macau in a similar situation to that of Hong Kong, which enjoyed a bit more peace and quiet as the number of visitors from the mainland fell in the first quarter.

The mainlanders chose to go elsewhere, partly because of antipathy from residents that was heightened by the proliferation of parallel traders, but also because they are more welcome and have relatively high spending power in places like Japan and Europe, where the local currencies have fallen against the renminbi.

The high-roller market, a casino industry source said, was basically dead, because of the antigraft campaign.

Casino operators now have no choice but to rely on mass-market gamblers, and that is why the minimum bet on weekdays is still HK$300 (US$38.70).

Because of cost concerns, gone are the days of the free flow of fruit juice and barbecued pork rice, a gimmick that casino king Stanley Ho Hung-sun borrowed from 2006, when the gaming city was opening up its market to more operators while tourist numbers had yet to catch up.

On the surface, fewer complaints are now heard in Macau, thanks to a less vibrant media scene (as most of the media is funded by the city).

That is also why Macau Chief Executive Fernando Chui is still more popular than Hong Kong’s Leung Chun-ying, although it is rather unlikely that the residents will continue to get 9,000 MOP (US$1,127) every year from the government now that its tax revenue from gambling has decreased.

Interestingly taxi drivers are not unhappy despite a close to 20 per cent drop in rides, one of them said.

That is because fuel prices fell over 30 per cent in the past year, while taxi fares rose about 20 per cent (the flagfall went up to 17 MOP for the first 1.6 kilometers from 15 MOP for the first 1.5 km, and the fare for each subsequent 260 meters is now 2 MOP, up from 1.5 MOP for each subsequent 230 meters).

“My take-home pay is just the same,” a cabbie said.

On average, Macau taxi drivers take home 25,000 MOP per month — higher than the average income of Hong Kong taxi drivers — after paying cab rental of 12,000 MOP per month.

Less competition to get a taxi is good for passengers. I remember the average waiting time for a cab during my last two visits last year was about 30 minutes.

Right now it is less than one minute.

Considering some of the lower-ranking five-star hotels are offering discounted rates of HK$1,000 per night during this low season, I think Macau compares favorably with other favourite destinations of Hongkongers, such as Taipei and Bangkok.

Fellow sufferers commiserate with each other, so I think it is time that Hongkongers visit Macau more and Macau residents visit Hong Kong more.

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EJ Insight writer

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