“We need to work on a plan to assimilate and to make sure that in the future, Macau would be in the center of things, but also integrated with the development and the future of the whole Pearl River delta,” said Ho, the daughter of Macau gambling godfather Stanley Ho (何鴻燊).
The government has banned gambling on Hengqin, but that has not deterred Macau’s billion-dollar casino operators.
Galaxy Entertainment Group Ltd (銀河娛樂集團) is considering investing in sports stadiums, golf courses and a marina on the island to complement its Macau casinos, Galaxy deputy chairman Francis Lui (呂耀東) said.
“The customer is wanting a bigger and bigger experience... and in Macau, we just don’t have the land and it would be too expensive,” he said. “So Hengquin is going to be very important for us.”
LOOKING TO FUTURE
Hengquin is connected to Macau through two underwater tunnels. By 2016, it will also be linked to Macau in the east and Hong Kong to the north by a bridge. Rail services will also be extended to Hengqin.
Forests of cranes and scaffolding jut out from pockets of Hengqin as companies like Zhuhai Huafa Group Ltd and Shimao Property Holdings Ltd race to develop the island, where wooden stilt houses still dot parts of the shoreline.
Property prices have soared, with new houses near the central business district costing more than double the amount per square meter than in the nearby Zhuhai island.
Palm-fringed, six-lane highways line the island, while residential high-rises are cropping up as the pace of construction has picked up in the past year.
Home to fewer than 8,000 people now, officials forecast the island’s population to rise to more than a quarter of a million in seven years time.
The marine-themed Chimelong resort, headed by Chinese businessman Su Zhigang, is the biggest project to open on the island this year.
Its coral-hued towers, topped by blue onion-domes, will house 1,880 hotel rooms, a conference center, a spa and an indoor water park.
Macau University, which finished construction of its Hengqin campus in July this year on a site 20 times larger than its Macau location, will formally welcome students in February.
The university, which can accommodate up to 15,000 students, will be operated under the laws that govern Macau, and not Chinese regulations.
Major lenders such as Bank of China (中國銀行), Bank of Communications (交通銀行) and Agricultural Bank of China (中國農業銀行) have set up temporary offices in Hengqin’s central business district to help drive its development.
The island is also hoping to lure business with tax breaks and new financial policies that include allowing companies to develop offshore business in foreign currencies and piloting the exchange of the yuan, Macau pataca and Hong Kong dollar.
“The special thing about Hengqin is that it is a naturally isolated island, so the risk is controllable,” Niu said. “Hengqin, without exaggeration, is unique.”