Macau Moderne: A South China Sea surprise

Macau’s new development boom makes Las Vegas take a back seat to this growing gaming destination a half-world away. Photo: Credit: Starwood Hotels. Sheraton Macao Hotel, Cotai Central

MACAU – Macau is a place that has virtually no unemployment, no national debt, and no sales tax. It is a place that offers some generous government benefits, where luxury hotels are booked solid year ‘round and where investors are spending billions on new local projects.  Yet not many Americans have ever heard of it let alone find it on a map.

This may not be too surprising as Macau is a tiny city-state located on a peninsula of China washed by the South China Sea and part of the Pearl River Delta.  But here’s what makes it so special.  About a dozen years ago the communist government gave this former sleepy Portuguese territory status as a Special Administrative Region (SAR) and, at the same time, granted it permission to offer gaming — something not otherwise available anywhere in China.

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With some five billion people living within five hours flying time and among them 1.2 billion Chinese who love to gamble living just over the border, you can guess what happened. Overnight most of the big Las Vegas names saw the unlimited potential of the place and flew out in their private jets to Macau with expansive ideas and fat checkbooks.

Fast forward to today:  Macau’s gaming revenues last year hit $38 billion, exceeding those of Las Vegas. Each year some 28 million visitors, mostly Chinese, pour in to hit the tables and slots. They have plenty of choices as to where to stay. Macau has some 35 major brand hotel-casinos representing some $12 billion in investment.

Everything about Macau seems to be over the top. For starters, the area of the little SAR is only about 17.5 square miles – not as large as Manhattan – with a population of just 582,000.  Originally it consisted of the original Portuguese territory peninsula plus two small rural and hilly islands – Coloane and Taipa. The Portuguese gave it all back to China in 1999. Once gaming was approved, hotel-casinos quickly opened up on the Macau peninsula itself.  But developers soon ran out of space there and the islands weren’t suited for development.  No problem.

The swamp between the two islands was reclaimed, creating a new piece of nice flat real estate called Cotai – a name made up from the first letters of the two adjoining islands. What happened there has to be seen to be believed.

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Here’s an example: An outfit called Sands China, Ltd. – related as you might guess to the Las Vegas Sands empire – owns a cluster of five properties. They are the Venetian, the Conrad, the Holiday Inn, the Four Seasons and the Sheraton. Called the Cotai Strip Resorts Macao, those five alone represent some 9,000 rooms, over 100 dining options, four casinos and duty-free shopping with 600 retailers, almost all of them selling diamonds, expensive watches, and luxury clothes and accessories. No discount outlets here, that’s for sure.

To make it easy for guests to dine, gamble and shop without stepping foot outdoors, all five are interconnected by marble corridors lined, of course, with one luxury shop after another. When it comes to fashion, the offerings are the latest, right up there with those found in top stores in New York, London or Paris.

Newest of the Sands group is the Sheraton Macao Hotel. Just opened within the past year, the Sheraton consists of two 39-story towers. Their 3,896 rooms and suites make the Sheraton Macao Hotel the city-state’s largest property and Sheraton’s biggest world-wide. The list of other places to stay and play there on the Cotai Strip goes on and on – the Hard Rock, Galaxy, City of Dreams, Mandarin Oriental, the Wynn, Grand Hyatt, Hotel Okura, Sofitel, Westin and plenty more.

And the expansion goes on. Everyplace you look in Macau you see pile drivers, cranes and construction equipment.  The government is building some sort of light rail system to circle the islands and, just maybe, relieve the traffic problems.  Then there’s a second ferry terminal going in, to improve service by high-speed boats from Hong Kong, located just one hour away. Macau’s international airport is also being expanded and upgraded. Flying to Macau is easy, too: EVA Airlines operates the fastest direct (one-stop) service from the U.S. to Macau. And, of course, there are more hotel-casinos going up. Among those count a new MGM Grand, the Parisian, a JW Marriott, St. Regis and a Ritz Carlton, all expected to come on stream over the next two-three years. 

All the same, Macau has problems but they’re the kind any other city would love to have. Main complaint: there’s just not enough entertainment offered. The biggest production show in the city-state is a spectacular “House of Dancing Water” presented at a purpose-built, 2,000-seat theater at the City of Dreams hotel. Then there are possibly one or two smaller shows, but not much else.

Celebrity acts from the U.S. do come out from time to time.  Justin Bieber’s “Believer Tour” was out not long ago. And Alicia Keys will appear at the 1,800-seat theater in the Venetian in late November to kick off her “Set the World on Fire” tour. 

So while Macau may not be Las Vegas, at least in its entertainment offerings, it is certainly a fascinating city in its own right for visitors making a stopover to Hong Kong and other parts of Southeast Asia. For information on Macau, contact:

Norman Sklarewitz is a veteran reporter and freelance journalist based in Los Angeles.


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Norman Sklarewitz

As a freelance journalist, Norman Sklarewitz brings to his work for the Washington Times' Communities a professional background that began as a police reporter for Chicago's City News Bureau and went on to include the position of  Far East Correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. As such  he reported on major political, economic and social events of international significance from throughout Asia including the Vietnam War. Subsequently, he joined U.S. News & World Report as Los Angeles Bureau Chief. 

Since he moved on to freelance, he's published thousands of articles on a wide variety of topics for consumer, trade, airline inflights, special interest and corporate magazines and for newspaper travel sections.  These outlets also include periodicals published in Asia and Europe.

He is a graduate of Indiana University and holds a master's degree from the University of Southern California. He served three years in the U.S. Army during World War II, two years (1944-45) of which were in the European Theater of Operations where he was a military correspondent. He resides in Los Angeles with his wife, Esther.


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