If you need further proof that Macau has eclipsed Las Vegas, consider this: Macau’s gambling revenue hit a record $38 billion in 2012, according to the Gaming Bureau.
The tiny former Portuguese colony, which boasts China’s only gambling resort, has been booming since 2002, when a four-decade casino monopoly ended. Just two years later, the special administrative region raced ahead of Las Vegas to become the world’s largest casino market. By 2011, it generated more than five times the haul of its American rival.
Located on China’s southern coast near Hong Kong, Macau boasts 35 casinos owned by six companies along the glittery Cotai Strip, which was modeled on the Las Vegas Strip and sits atop reclaimed swampland.
Though earnings at Macau’s casinos rose 13.5 percent over the previous year, growth was considerably lower than in 2011, when revenue surged 42 percent year-on-year to $33.47 billion. Analysts blame the slowdown of the Chinese economy, but point to better-than-expected year-end revenues as a sign that a rebound is in sight.
Vegas, meanwhile, has become somewhat of a byword for the global recession, with flat revenues and a rise in the long-term unemployed. Many U.S.-based casino operators like Las Vegas Sands Corp. and Wynn Resorts Ltd. are now pushing ahead with their expansion plans in Macau, where they now earn the vast majority of their profits.
MGM Resorts International recently announced plans to add a new casino in Macau, too. The Parisian-themed resort is expected to cost $2.5 billion.
Macau’s advantages over Las Vegas are many: It lies within a five-hour flight from 3 billion people (compared to 315 million for Las Vegas), includes a Unesco-designated historic center and takes what it calls a more serious approach to gambling.
Al Merschen, the Macau Tourist Office representative in the U.S., told IBTimes at a luncheon last summer that it’s time America recognize the importance of Macau.
“It’s ridiculous to call Macau the Vegas of Asia,” he said. “Vegas is the Macau of America.”
Since the transfer of sovereignty from four centuries of Portuguese colonialism to the People’s Republic of China in 1999 -- two years after neighboring Hong Kong -- tourism to Macau has grown from 7 million to 28 million (56 percent of whom come from mainland China). There are now 23,000 hotel rooms, and some 140,000 of the semiautonomous region’s 600,000 residents work directly for the hospitality industry.
Joao Manuel Costa Antunes, Macau tourism director, told IBTimes that Macau is looking to diversify its offerings in the coming years to become less dependent on casino earnings.
“We hope to promote a model of hotel first, casino next,” he said. “We want more shows and more attractions. We have too many replicas of Las Vegas casinos; we want more innovation from the hoteliers.”
The expansion of a high-speed rail link with the mainland city of Zhuhai and further infrastructure developments are expected to fuel growth in 2013, though a smoking ban and anti-corruption initiatives from the new Chinese leadership could slow things down.
Either way, it’s safe to say Macau is riding out its lucky streak as long as it can.
Mark Johanson is the travel editor at the International Business Times. He has traveled to and written about more than 30 nations and territories on every continent except...