Outlook Dicey for World's New Gambling Capital The Chinese territory of Macau surpassed Las Vegas in revenues from gambling for the first time last year. American companies are rushing in to open new hotels and casinos, but some observers are already wondering how long the gold rush can last.
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Outlook Dicey for World's New Gambling Capital

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Outlook Dicey for World's New Gambling Capital

Outlook Dicey for World's New Gambling Capital

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

The world has a new gambling capital and it's a long ways away from Las Vegas. For the first time last year, the Chinese territory of Macau took in more money from gaming than the Vegas strip. Macau is a former Portuguese colony. And it's booming as American companies rush to open hotels and casinos. There are also some questions about how long the gold rush will last.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn went to check it all out.

(Soundbite of falling coins in slot machine)

ANTHONY KUHN: The slot machines at Macau's Grand Lisboa Casino are adorned with figures from "Journey to the West" and other Chinese literary classics. But the sound of a jackpot needs no translation. The Grand Lisboa is the new flagship of Stanley Ho, the legendary 85-year-old billionaire who held a monopoly on gambling in Macau for 40 years until 2002. Many of Ho's customers used to be hardcore gamblers, most of them men from neighboring Hong Kong.

Thirty-one-year-old supermarket owner Mao Jianhua, is typical of the new breed of visitor to Macau. He's from mainland China, and he didn't come just to gamble.

Mr. MAO JIANHUA (Casino Patron): (Speaking in foreign language)

KUHN: I'm just here for the fun of it, for entertainment, he says. I'm not a big gambler. I just lost a little money today. It's now very convenient to come here from the mainland. A bus picks us up at the border and brings us here. Last year, Macau's casinos raked in $6.95 billion in revenues, according to the Macau Gaming Inspection and Coordination Bureau. That's roughly $200 million more than Vegas.

(Soundbite of music)

KUHN: The biggest new casino here is Las Vegas magnate Sheldon Adelson's $2.4 billion Venetian Macao. Twice the size of its Las Vegas counterpart, the sprawling resort features 3,000 hotel rooms, a 1 million-square-foot convention center, a 15,000-seat arena and fake Venetian canals, complete with imported Italian gondoliers.

Venetian Macao's president, Marc Brown, says American gaming companies are changing Macau's image, which used to be synonymous with hardcore gambling and seedy casinos.

Mr. MARC BROWN (President, Venetian Macao): If you didn't gamble, you didn't come to Macau. And why would you? I mean, basically, Hong Kong has great restaurants, great hotels, great spas, great shopping. That's what we created here. And you can spend a very enjoyable few days here and not set foot in a casino.

KUHN: Of course, gambling still accounts for 80 percent of Macau's economic activity. And 70 percent of the casinos' revenues come from high rollers, who bet tens of thousands of dollars a hand at baccarat tables in private VIP rooms. Despite the influx of money, many Macau residents are far from contented.

On May 1st this year, workers took to the streets, protesting official corruption and the importation of illegal laborers. Macau legislator Au Kam-San says the casino boom is fueling inequality, driving up property prices and forcing local companies out of business.

Mr. AU KAM-SAN (Macau Legislator): (Speaking in foreign language)

KUHN: The increase in Macau's average wage is because of high salaries at the casinos, it's not because poor people's wages have risen. Meanwhile, prices have risen and so their quality of life has declined.

Macau's government levies a 39 percent tax on the casinos' earnings. But officials may be taking more under the table. Macau's former secretary for transport and public works went on trial this week, accused of taking huge bribes in exchange for expediting approval of construction projects.

Speaking at a Portuguese restaurant, veteran local journalist Ricardo Pinto says Macau must not become a Las Vegas clone.

Mr. RICARDO PINTO (Editor, Ponto Final): Macau cannot, you know, just become like a new Las Vegas with a strip, with a lot of people making a lot of money, and then a downtown which is mostly moribund, almost dying. Macau is not a place to do it, because Macau, it is not a desert, you know? It was not a desert, it's a place with hundreds of years of history.

KUHN: Macau was a colony of Portugal for nearly four and a half centuries before returning to Chinese sovereignty in 1999. The city's old center remains a picturesque mix of cobbled streets, baroque churches and colonial forts.

In an antique shop near the ruins of St. Paul's church, merchant Liang Meiqing stands amid Buddhist statues and wooden furniture. She says the new casinos haven't helped her business a bit.

Ms. LIANG MEIQING (Business Owner): (Through translator) Tourists these days are mostly mainlanders. They come to gamble, not to buy our antiques. It was better before China became so open. There were more foreigners who would buy our things.

KUHN: Legislator Au Kam-San notes that Macau's economy was stagnant until Beijing made the decision to ease visa restrictions and allow more mainlanders to visit Macau. Au warns that if Beijing changes its mind about the policy, the casino boom could quickly go bust.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Macau.

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