Macau celebrated its 10th anniversary of Chinese rule yesterday, a decade marked by the extraordinary transformation of the once seedy Portuguese colony into a glitzy international gambling capital.
Leaders stressed the need to lessen the local economy’s reliance on casinos, however, even as they commemorated the success that has helped this southern Chinese enclave surpass Las Vegas as the world’s most lucrative gambling market.
“In the next five years, we will actively promote the diverse economic development of Macau,” said the territory’s new leader, Fernando Chui (崔世安), after being sworn in by Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤).
The tiny territory, best known as a dingy casino town in the past half-century of its 400-year history as a Portuguese colony, returned to Chinese rule on Dec. 20, 1999, as its economy was shriveling and warring Chinese gangs were frightening away tourists.
Since then, violence has subsided and the economy has exploded.
The one place in China where gambling is legal, Macau boomed after the government broke up a local company’s long-standing monopoly seven years ago and started welcoming US gambling powerhouses such as Wynn Resorts, Las Vegas Sands and MGM Mirage.
As the operators built one flashy casino resort after another, gamblers showed up by the millions — the overwhelming majority of them from mainland China — and profits surged. By 2006, the enclave less than one-sixth the size of Washington had hauled in more revenue than the Las Vegas Strip.
“If you said 10 years ago that Macau would have accumulated billions of billions of new capital dedicated to one industry and thrived like this, few would have believed you,” said Jonathan Galaviz, an independent gaming and tourism consultant. “Now it’s clear Macau is an economic success story.”
Sensitive to criticism that its newfound wealth has not benefited everyone, both Chui and Hu emphasized the importance of diversifying the local economy.
Macau saw several relatively large worker protests in 2007, with locals upset about the influx of immigrant labor and corruption. Last year, a former transportation and public works secretary was sentenced to 27 years in jail for taking millions of dollars in bribes.
Chui made scant mention of the casino industry in his inaugural speech except to say he would step up its oversight. He did not elaborate.
“While we strengthen the regulation of the gambling industry, we will also support the advancement and transformation of the convention, logistics, cultural and traditional industries,” said Chui, who was selected by a 300-member committee.
Hu urged Macau to maintain a transparent government and pay attention to the “comprehensiveness, coordination and sustainability” of its economy.
Macau’s casino sector began cooling toward the end of last year as the economic crisis took hold and Chinese visa restrictions slowed the influx of gamblers. Revenues swooned, multibillion-dollar casino projects were halted and thousands of workers were laid off.
But the casinos, thanks largely to the strength of mainland China’s stimulus-primed economy, are teeming once again.