‘The Central Hotel is not precisely a hotel. It is a nine-storey skyscraper and it is devoted solely to the human so-called vices. It has one more original feature. The higher up the building you go, the more beautiful and expensive are the girls, the higher the stakes at the gambling tables, and the better the music,’ wrote Ian Fleming when he visited Macau in the 1960s.
Long famed as a centre for gambling, Macau was a Portuguese colony until 1999, when it was returned to China. It shares Special Administrative Region status with Hong Kong, and both former colonies retain separate legal, monetary, and immigration policies to mainland China.
‘Macau is the only place in China where casino gambling is legal,’ says David G. Schwartz, Director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada. ‘It largely attracts gamblers from Hong Kong and mainland China. Because of its monopoly, it has become a very large market.’
Around 1.17 million people visit Macau on package tours alone, according to the region’s government. Most are there for the gaming. But annual revenue fell to $44billion in 2014, a 2.6 per cent drop. In December, revenue was down 30 per cent, the fifth consecutive monthly drop.
The fall in numbers is due to a crackdown in mainland China on corruption linked to gambling, along with the central government’s desire to see Macau’s economy become more diverse. The big spenders who fuelled the Macau boom are being caught in the anti-corruption net.
‘I think this will speed the transition from a reliance on VIPs to putting more effort into courting the premium mass segments. These range from middle-class vacationers to wealthy Chinese citizens below the VIP level. They gamble less per capita, but there are more of them,’ says Schwartz.
In 1961, Portuguese Governor Jaime Silvério Marques, declared Macau to be a ‘permanent gaming region’. Whatever methods the central government in China tries to control it, Macau is likely to go its own way with gaming, so long as it gets to set the house rules.
This story was published in the February 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine