Las Vegas has long been known as the casino capital of the world. The bright lights of the Vegas Strip attract around 36.7million tourists from around the world, each keen to try their luck in any one of 74 casinos in Vegas, 29 of which are on the world famous Las Vegas Strip. And whereas you´re more likely to hear the shouts of gamblers crowded around a shooter on the craps table in Vegas, head to Macau (or Macao) and you´ll probably be listening to the Sic Bo bell and shouts of Cantonese players as they bet on this ancient Chinese dice game.
But in recent times, a young pretender to the throne has shown up in the casino world and in 2006, the previously little-known enclave of Macau has powered past Vegas as the world’s biggest casino centre and is showing no signs of letting Vegas take back the crown that it held for so long.
The small region in the south-east of China, formally a Portuguese colony, has long had gambling at the heart of its economy and, like Vegas, benefits from the fact that gambling remains either illegal or severely restricted in many surrounding regions, most notably China itself. The Macau Casino complex is bigger than Las Vegas and that’s before they have built the bridge fm Hong Kong and Zhuhai.
As a result, some 10.5m visitors from China alone and many more from across Asia flock to Macau, pumping a staggering $6.8bn (£3.6bn) into the local economy every year – some $200m more than the total casino turnover in Las Vegas. The figure is even more amazing when you consider that Macau has no online casino economy and 46 fewer casinos.
The casino boom for Macau came in 2001 when the territory left Portuguese rule and was handed back to China. A year later, competition rules that meant that certain operators held a monopoly on casinos in the region were relaxed, opening the floodgates for foreign operators to move in and start building Macau into the tourist and gaming metropolis that it is today.
MGM Grand and Wynn, both big names on the Vegas Strip, were amongst the first to build glitzy palaces there and Macau (or Macao to give it is alternative spelling) even has its very own Venetian, currently the largest of 28 casinos currently operating in the country, and in the record books as the largest casino on the planet.
The Venetian isn’t going to hold on to the title for long however. There´s a new giant in town with the $1bn, 420,000sq ft ‘City of Dreams’ complex, the first ever underwater casino, due to open later this year. Once that has been completed, work is then expected to start on the next big project – the Macau Studio City which, when built, will boast 500,000sq ft of casino space. That means that by the end of this year, Macau could boast more than 2.3m sq-ft of casino space and as many as 11,000 slot machines – more than double the amount currently found in Las Vegas.
It’s certainly enough to get casino bosses and tourism officials in Nevada panicking, with Las Vegas currently investing around $20m and working to attract major events such as big-time boxing to the Strip in an attempt to retain its casino crown. We’ll have to wait to see if the tactic works but with many other Asian regions looking enviously at Macau’s success, Vegas could end up with even more competition yet.