MACAU (Reuters) - Overseas visitors are an increasingly common sight in China’s gambling territory of Macau which is trying to diversify an economic model that has depended on mainland high rollers for more than a decade.
The economy in the tiny former Portuguese colony, billed the Las Vegas of the East, has been pounded over the last two years by a drop in Chinese gamblers due to President Xi Jinping's anti-corruption campaign and a slowing economy.
Now the government has hearkened calls to reposition Macau as a tourism destination, with the number of international visitors growing 8 percent last year from 2015, compared with those from greater China edging up only 0.1 percent.
Once a sleepy backwater, with its colonial-era hotels, waterside banyan trees, slightly sleazy night life and occasional gangland killings, Macau has tidied up and diversified its act since its return to China in 1999 with huge new resorts, music festivals and even an international fireworks display competition.
Gamblers from mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan account for more than 90 percent of total visitors, but a shift away from the tables is slowly emerging.
Foreigners stuck out through the crowds of mainlanders in shops skirting U.S. billionaire Sheldon Adelson’s Venetian, owned by Sands China Ltd. Indian families tucked into naan and curry in the restaurant while tourists of other nationalities took photos against the backdrop of the facade of St Paul's, a Jesuit church that burnt down in 1835.
"We just want to see the old town. We are more interested in the tourist attractions," said Rachel Mumberson, 33, a teacher from Singapore. "We definitely didn't come here for gambling."
Hotel rooms are set to increase by 40 percent and two new mega resorts are due to open in the next two years at a time when revenues have started to rebound due to a return of VIP spenders.
"TOO MUCH RELIANCE ON MAINLAND"
While income generated from the big spenders is unlikely to be replaced anytime soon, per capita spending from non-Chinese has accelerated, with tourists from Singapore, Japan and Malaysia nearly matching those from mainland China, government statistics from the fourth quarter show.
"In the past decade, we relied too much on mainland tourists," said Agnes Lam, head of Macau Civic Power, an organisation which focuses on political and social issues.
"I think the increase of foreign tourists is very important to Macau and will actually make the tourist industry here become more healthy,” said Lam, who is also an assistant professor at the University of Macau.
Both Macau and the former British colony of Hong Kong are designated "special administrative regions" and allowed certain freedoms not enjoyed on the Communist Party-ruled mainland.
As in Hong Kong, Macau's retailers and local businesses had geared themselves towards mainland tourists selling cosmetics, jewellery and even milk powder - after a health scare in China - forcing the closure of home-style stores and small businesses.
Industry experts have called for Macau to differentiate itself as rival casino hubs mushroom around Asia, from the Philippines and Singapore to Japan which recently legalised casino gambling.
Officials have responded by touting Macau’s history, culture and Portuguese-influenced gastronomy rather than its casinos, with the tourism body targeting a range of high profile marketing campaigns.
"Macau is unknown in Europe," said Kurt Ornstein, 68, visiting from Switzerland with his wife and a big fan of Macau Portuguese egg tarts. "Nobody knows about Macau."
(Additional reporting by Joyce Zhou and Katy Wong; Editing by Nick Macfie)