Four-decade monopoly in Macau's gaming industry

MACAU (AP) - A Las Vegas tycoon raised the stakes in Macau's gambling industry Tuesday with a new casino that brought competition to the tiny enclave's top business for the first time in more than 40 years. 

The operator of the Venetian on the Las Vegas Strip, Sheldon Adelson, hopes Nevada's glitter and glitz paired with a distinctive Chinese flavor will attract the mainly Chinese gamblers who drop billions of dollars each year at casinos run by Hong Kong's Stanley Ho. 

Macau's new casino, the Sands, cost US$240 million and features 277 gaming tables and 405 slot machines that were opening to gamblers on Tuesday afteroon. 

It was designed with elements of feng shui to make patrons feel comfortable and will include "tea boys'' in traditional Chinese attire serving gamblers. 

"It looks so grand. I'll definitely go there and have a look,'' said Vincent Zhao, a 20-year-old hotel clerk in Macau. 

Adelson made his mark in Las Vegas with the Venetian, a replica of Venice complete with canals and singing gondoliers, and wants to create an Asian version of the Strip later in Macau with another artificial Venice. 

The payout in Macau could be huge, said executives with Adelson's company, Las Vegas Sands Inc. 

Company president William Weidner said Macau casinos are expected to bring in US$4.2 billion to US$4.6 billion in gaming revenues this year, compared with US$5 billion for the Las Vegas Strip, with massive growth expected as newly affluent mainland Chinese flood in. 

"Macau is on the verge of becoming the world's top revenue-producing gaming market,'' Weidner predicted. 

Adelson won one of three gaming licenses when Macau decided in 2002 to open its industry to competition after Ho held a monopoly for four decades. 

Ho will stay in the game, and the other license went to Las Vegas mogul Steve Wynn, who has been holding off on his plans while waiting for Macau to changes its laws and let casinos provide credit to players. 

Ho said he welcomes the competition - and analysts say it's long overdue. 

"I'm confident about Macau's future,'' Ho told reporters. 

"As long as it's healthy competition, I think the pie will keep on growing, and each party will get its piece.'' 

Macau's casinos are just 40 miles (60 kilometers) west of Hong Kong, and they attract Hong Kong and Chinese gamblers - who have no casinos at home - in droves. 

The entry of the Las Vegas operators into Macau is already reshaping this formerly sleepy territory that was returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1999 after more than four centuries of rule from Portugal. 

Some of the seedier aspects of Macau - loan sharks preying on gamblers and prostitutes flocking around the casinos - will remain. 

"You show me a city anywhere in the world and I'll find you a loan shark,'' Weidner said, adding the company won't chase off prostitutes who gather outside although solicitation will be banned in the casino. 

The economy is booming in double digits and Ho's company last year paid Macau unprecedented profit taxes of 10.1 billion patacas (US$1.3 billion), a 31 percent increase from 2002. 

Ho is responding by polishing up his flagship Lisboa and he plans a 40-story luxury hotel-casino - along with an amusement park. - AP 

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