World's casino kings betting on a Macau boom

MACAU (AP): Chinese businessman Cao Yanglin let his lunch of slow-cooked beef rib with truffle puree and lemon cream sauce go cold as he talked about his gambling spree the night before at the baccarat tables in Macau _ the world's new epicenter for gambling. 

The 58-year-old property developer said he won US$3,840 (euro2,907) at the Las Vegas-style Wynn Macau casino hotel, where he was enjoying his noon meal. But he said he lost US$7,680 (euro5,813) at the new Grand Lisboa, shaped like a giant Faberge egg covered in flashing lights. 

The sting of losing so much money seemed to have faded for the smiling Cao, who resembled a TV anchorman with a deep voice, square jaw and dyed black hair. He was busy musing about the amazing changes sweeping China and how Macau would profit from the increasingly wealthy Chinese who have a reputation for wagering more than Americans. 

"My father was a railroad worker who never left the country,'' said Cao, from the northern city of Tianjin, near Beijing. "But I've been to Macau more than 10 times and I've even been to Vegas. They need to have more baccarat tables there.'' 

It's gamblers like Cao who helped this city on the southeastern Chinese coast bump off the Las Vegas Strip last year as the world's gambling center. The city raked in US$6.95 billion (euro5.26 billion) in gambling revenue, while the Strip made US$6.69 billion (euro5.06 billion), regulators in both cities said. 

Macau _ the only place in China where casinos are legal _ says it's just getting started. More casinos, malls, convention centers, resorts and thousands of hotel rooms are being built in the city, which has a population of just over a half million. 

Investors here could be on the dream team of the global casino industry: MGM Mirage Inc., U.S. tycoon Steve Wynn. and Las Vegas Sands Corp. head Sheldon Adelson. Also involved is James Packer, executive chairman of Australia's biggest media and gambling company, Publishing & Broadcasting Ltd. And Richard Branson of Britain's Virgin Group Ltd. has talked of investing in a casino resort. 

The tycoons say they're certain that booming China will get even richer and millions of new gamblers will flood into the casinos.  

They plan to follow the same blueprint that successfully transformed Las Vegas from a seedy casino town to a global hot spot for dining, shows, conventions and shopping. 

"Macau is the safest bet on Earth,'' Wynn, who opened his US$1.2 billion (euro910 million) casino resort here in September, told The Associated Press. 

But some analysts warn of risks. China could suffer political upheaval an economic meltdown. New gambling resorts in Singapore and elsewhere in Asia could lure away visitors. Or the shoppers, conventioneers and families just might not show up as they did in Las Vegas. 

"I think things could get pretty ugly there pretty fast,'' said Matt Hoult, a portfolio manager at ABN AMRO Asset Management who is predicting a glut in hotel rooms. 

Business models don't always succeed in every part of the world. Wal-Mart retreated from South Korea and Germany. Disney struggled in France and its newest park in Hong Kong has been a disappointment. Will Macau be a boom or a bust? 

Macau _ a peninsula and two islands _ was ruled by Portugal for 442 years before it was returned to China as a semiautonomous territory in 1999. 

It has one of Asia's most intriguing and charming blends of East and West. Street signs are in Portuguese and Chinese. The signature snack is the creamy egg tart on puff pastry. There are still plenty of colonial-style buildings painted in pastel yellow, pink and peach. The city center, with streets paved with mosaic tiles, is on UNESCO's World Heritage List. 

But Macau's dreary side is easy to find. Beautiful buildings are far outnumbered by drab concrete apartment blocks. In the old casino district, streets are lined with small stores illuminated with headache-inducing fluorescent lights. Shop windows are crammed with Zippo-like lighters and gaudy jewelry. 

Buxom, bleach-blonde Russian women in tight pants hang out at outdoor cafes behind the Holiday Inn Macau. Skinny mainland Chinese prostitutes dart from closed storefronts in search of clients, saying, "Massage, massage?'' _ the codeword for "sex'' at the rate of US$63 (euro48) an hour. Some hand out flimsy business cards with fake names like "Yang Yang'' or "Ling Ling.'' 

Macau was a darker, more dangerous place in the late 1990s when the Portuguese were preparing to leave. Criminal gangs _ or triads _ led by bosses with nicknames like "Broken Tooth Koi'' waged turf wars with drive-by shootings, kidnappings and car bombs that scared away tourists. 

In a desperate bid to lure back visitors, one security official famously proclaimed there was nothing to fear in Macau because the triad assassins were professionals who didn't miss their targets. 

The violence mostly ended after 1999 when the Chinese People's Liberation Army marched into Macau. But the biggest change came a day after the handover. The Chinese government announced it was ending the four-decade monopoly on gambling held by Hong Kong tycoon Stanley Ho. 

The news created a huge stir in the global gambling world, and more than 20 bidders vied for the three offered concessions. One went to Las Vegas mogul Wynn and another to a partnership between Hong Kong tycoon Lui Che Woo and the Sands' head Adelson, who later split to develop their own projects. 

The third concession went to billionaire Ho, a balding, lanky 85-year-old mogul who is still an avid ballroom dancer and likes to talk trash about his rivals. 

Ho has long been seen as Macau's de facto leader because he owns almost everything in town: land, hotels, 17 casinos, a helicopter service and high-speed ferries that shuttle gamblers from Hong Kong, just an hour away. 

One popular topic of conversation in Hong Kong _ where people are obsessed with tycoons _ is whether Ho was cozy with the mob when he ruled the gaming industry. Ho vigorously denies any triad ties and no clear evidence has been produced. 

But the issue popped up again recently when a lawyer for Ho's estranged sister Winnie _ who has filed corruption lawsuits against her brother _ was severely beaten by thugs while eating in a crowded McDonald's in Hong Kong on a Sunday afternoon. Ho immediately issued a statement saying he had nothing to do with the attack. 

He has been losing market share ever since his monopoly ended. This month, when he opened his new flagship casino, the US$384 million (euro291 million) Grand Lisboa, the tycoon told reporters his slice of the market had shrunk to 63 percent in 2006. 

Still, losing the monopoly might be one of the best things to happen to him. Macau was in decline for years, and Ho was unable to single-handedly revitalize the place. The newcomers from Las Vegas have created a big new buzz that has produced spectacular growth numbers. 

Gambling revenue has more than doubled to US$6.95 billion (euro5.2 billion) since 2002. Visitor arrivals hit a record high of almost 22 million last year _ a 17 percent increase over 2005. 

Much of that extra money and tourist traffic is ending up in Ho's casinos. When he opened his new Grand Lisboa in February, the thousands who flowed into the 500-table casino included Wu Haihua, a 54-year-old machinist from the city of Foshan in southern Guangdong province. 

The stocky Wu said Macau's casino business was far from being saturated. "We have an expression in Chinese,'' he said. "When a business is good, the demand gets even bigger when more join in.'' 

Inside the Grand Lisboa, the mood was much different from Las Vegas, where Americans like to gamble in a more party-like atmosphere. The Chinese are much more serious. They usually don't drink as they hunker over their cards in quiet concentration _ interrupted only by sips of green tea or puffs on a cigarette. They prefer table games over slots. 

Chinese gamblers also don't stay in town longer than a day, and most go on marathon casino binges with brief breaks for a bowl of noodles or a massage. That's got to change if Macau's huge expansion plans are to succeed. 

The billionaires investing in Macau say people will stay for three and a half days if there are convention centers, glitzier shows, massive malls and five-star resorts.  

It worked for Las Vegas, they say. 

But Rob Hart, an analyst at Morgan Stanley in Hong Kong, thinks that Macau will be more like Atlantic City _ a casino town surrounded by huge metropolitan areas that feed it with day-tripping gamblers. 

"I don't think people will want to stay in Macau for three and half days on average _ ever,'' he said, adding that Macau will shift from being a male-dominated casino spot to one that's friendlier to women and couples. 

Macau's unavoidable problem is that it's too small, Hart said. 

"If you look at Las Vegas, you have 180 golf courses within a two-hour drive of Las Vegas. You have the Grand Canyon. You have whitewater rafting. You have a bunch of other things that you can do, which you're never going to have in Macau,'' he said. 

Adding to Macau's woes is bad weather, Hart said. He noted that for six months of the year, it's too hot and sticky to be outside and pollution coats the city year round from nearby Guangdong province, one of the world's biggest manufacturing centers. 

Hart's analysis is disputed by two Las Vegas tycoons who hate each other and rarely agree on anything: Steve Wynn and Sheldon Adelson. 

Wynn said people will come to Macau's fancy hotels once they're built. "Macau can absorb the rooms as long as the quality is wonderful,'' said the developer, who built The Mirage, Treasure Island and Bellagio resorts in Las Vegas. 

The sleek 600-room Wynn Macau with a sloping roof is a stark contrast to Stanley Ho's stodgy casinos. Wynn's complex has a lush garden and a manmade lake. Outdoor speakers play sultry jazz and Frank Sinatra. The hotel's signature fragrance _ a scent like a new leather designer handbag filled with a potpourri of flowers _ can be smelled from the walkway outside the building. 

Skeptics who doubt mainland Chinese tourists will want to step away from the casino tables to shop should visit the Louis Vuitton boutique in the Wynn Macau. It was packed on a recent Sunday before dinnertime with mainlanders grabbing handbags, belts and shoes off the shelves. 

When asked what the hottest selling item is, the sales staff said without hesitation: "The nansheng bao bao!'' or "man bags!'' _ a square leather tote with a shoulder strap selling for about US$1,000 (euro755). Many mainland gamblers buy a man bag, believing it's good luck to go into the casino with a new tote with plenty of room for money to flow in. 

So far, Adelson has been enormously successful in Macau. In 2004, he opened the 740-table Sands Macau, the world's biggest casino by tables. Within a year, the casino earned back all of the US$240 million (euro181.7 million) in invested capital, his company said. 

Adelson said Macau has big advantages over Las Vegas _ a large population nearby that's anxious to come and gamble. 

About 100 million people _ living in China's wealthiest region _ are within a three-hour car ride from Macau. One billion people are within a three-hour flight and 3 billion are just a five-hour flight away. 

Adelson brushed off speculation that Macau could be threatened by the possibility the Chinese government will legalize casinos in other parts of the country. 

"It's like the threat to my grandfather that my grandmother will develop testicles and then she would be my grandfather,'' he told the AP. 

Adelson is famous as the visionary who turned Las Vegas into a site for conventions and exhibits. He wants to do the same in Macau and at midyear plans to open his Venetian Macao Resort Hotel, with 3,000 suites, a casino with 6,000 slot machines, a convention space and mall. Italian gondolas and Chinese sampans will cruise canals in the complex similar to The Venetian in Las Vegas. 

The project's site on a piece of reclaimed land called the Cotai Strip is said to be big enough to park 90 Boeing 747 jets. Some of the biggest names in the hotel industry will be part of the project: Shangri-la, Sheraton, St. Regis, Hilton, Conrad and Four Seasons, Adelson said. Wynn, Ho and other moguls have projects on the Cotai. 

People will want to have trade shows in Macau because it's close to where most of the world's goods are made, said William Weidner, president and chief financial officer of Sands Las Vegas. 

"We'll create an environment where the Western buyer can be entertained,'' Weidner told the AP. "They'll be able to have the Las Vegas experience, and we can introduce the Western buyer to the Eastern seller under one roof. That's an explosive combination.'' 

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