25 October 2016
Macau's gaming sector accounts for nearly half of the city's economy, but tourist arrivals and casino revenues are declining. Photo: Bloomberg
Macau's gaming sector accounts for nearly half of the city's economy, but tourist arrivals and casino revenues are declining. Photo: Bloomberg

Macau people wonder about their future

Drive through the Taipa district of Macau and everything is gigantic. The 39-storey Venetian is the biggest single hotel building in Asia. On empty land nearby more giant casino hotels are rising, with thousands of migrant laborers hard at work.

But local people are wondering: is the demand from mainland visitors really insatiable? Could these new towers become “ghost cities”?

The anti-corruption campaign on the mainland has devastated the casino industry. Official figures show that gross gaming revenues in April dropped 38.8 percent to 19.16 billion patacas from a year earlier. It was the 11th consecutive monthly fall. In the first four months, revenues fell 37.1 percent to 83.94 billion patacas from the same period in 2014. Last year saw the first fall in revenue since the issue of new casino licences in 2002.

This drastic fall is in part a result of Macau being such a faithful child of the central government; it is cooperating closely with the campaign. The super-rich and officials of China believe that data and videos of them in the casinos will be handed over to mainland police and anti-graft officials. So they feel unsafe there and prefer to take their gambling habit to casinos in South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia and other countries.

Tourist arrival figures are not so good either. In the first quarter of this year, arrivals fell 3.6 percent to 7.4 million, with those coming from the mainland – the biggest market that counts for two thirds of the total — down 2.9 percent to about 5 million.

So is Macau too dependent on tourism and gambling? During his visit to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the territory’s return to Chinese sovereignty last December, President Xi Jinping urged Macau to diversify its economy, saying that deep-seated problems had been found in the gambling industry.

Last year gambling accounted for 46.11 percent of Macau’s economy: real estate was 8.67 percent, retail and wholesale 7.65 percent, hotels and restaurants 7.4 percent and finance 6.18 percent. Manufacturing was just 0.6 percent.

Macau has 35 casinos with 5,750 gambling tables. Casinos account for over 80 percent of government revenue and employ 58,000 people, 23 percent of the city’s workforce; they earn an average salary of 20,000 patacas.

For its part, the government says it is confident about the future and the city’s ability to diversify. It points to several points of growth – new free trade zones in Hengqin, Qianhai and Nanhai; President Xi’s One Belt, One Road initiative; and its role as a bridge between China and the Portuguese-speaking world. 

It is urging its people and companies to seize the economic opportunities offered by these projects.

The city’s tourism board is also actively diversifying what is available to visitors. It has organized eight “walking tour” routes for those who do not want to join tour groups; it organizes music, art and cultural events with performers from all over the world; and it is marketing Macau as a culinary and boutique destination, with upmarket cuisine, spas and other offerings aimed at the wealthy traveler. The city has many museums which arrange exhibitions throughout the year.

In Macau’s favor is the absence of public animosity toward mainlanders. The Occupy Central movement and protests against parallel traders found no echo in Macau.

“We feel that tourism is our lifeblood,” said Leung Man-kit, a taxi driver. “Without tourists, especially those from the mainland, the city will die. In addition, a large part of the population are recent arrivals. They do not have that sense of difference felt by many in Hong Kong.”

“I do not want to go to Hong Kong now,” said Li Ti-yang, a salesman from Zhuhai. “We feel unwelcome there. Instead, I can go to Macau and buy most of what I want there, especially consumer electronics. I do not want to take the risk of being shouted at for being a mainlander.”

In many respects, Macau is like a mainland city. The Chinese-language press is restrained; most outspoken are Portuguese-language media with a very limited readership. The city has passed a national security law; civil society is obedient to the government, with no demand for democratization.

So the worst nightmare is excluded – Beijing concludes that gambling is a moral curse on Chinese society, ruining families and businesses, and bans or severely limits its citizens from going to Macau.

The central government will remain puritan and ban gambling at home but will allow its people to splash out for a short time if they cross the border.

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Hong Kong-based journalist and author. He had worked as a correspondent for the South China Morning Post in Beijing and Shanghai.

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