Roll of the Dice: Chinese City Takes on Vegas

If you're feeling lucky, then you might want to book a ticket to Macau.

Forget Monte Carlo, Atlantic City, even Las Vegas. The sleepy coastal backwater, an hour ferry ride away from Hong Kong, seems set to surpass Vegas to become the gambling capital of the world.

The gaming revenues in the Chinese-held territory are expected to top $6.8 billion this year, slightly more cash than Las Vegas' casinos will bring in.

It has been a stunning transformation for this former Portuguese colony. Macau had long been known throughout Asia as a gambling mecca, but was dominated by a tawdry gambling scene, seedy nightlife and a fair share of corruption and vice.

Most of the gamblers were day-trippers from Hong Kong, who would head home flush or broke at the end of the night.

A Vegas Facelift

But, in recent years, Macau has undergone a multi-million dollar facelift. Since the Chinese government allowed foreign casinos to begin operating on Macau in 1991, major players have been setting up shop and cashing in.

American casino magnate Steve Wynn opened a glitzy, Vegas-style resort on Macau. The Sands group built what is now the world's biggest casino here, and others have followed suit.

The result has been Southeast Asia's own version of the Vegas strip, complete with all of the glamour and grandeur you'd expect, from lavish fountains to neon lights. It seems to be a bet that is paying off in spades.

Stephen Weaver, the vice president of Asian development for the Sands, says the investment in Macau has paid off for the casinos.

"We earned back our investment in this property in nine or 10 months," he says. "That is a successful investment by anybody's standard."

Fun for Young and Old

With the encouragement of the Macau government, the newest casinos are also selling themselves as resort destinations for the entire family -- offering recreation facilities, organized tours, health clubs, and exotic spas. Their hope is that families will come and stay for several days, as they now do in Las Vegas.

To make certain the kids have something to do, there is already a sprawling new 24-hour theme park along the waterfront. "Fisherman's Wharf" is jammed with a variety of restaurants, tourist shops, carnival rides, and faux wonders of the world -- a "forbidden city," a "Roman coliseum," and 130-foot volcano that spews fire every night at sunset (so high into the sky that the eruptions have to be delayed when the local tourist helicopter flies in for a landing).

For the big-spenders, there is also more sophisticated entertainment. In the posh "Tryst" nightclub at the Wynn, well-heeled customers dance under crystal chandeliers or slip into plush red velvet sofas to sip expensive Cristal champagne.

"We get great feedback; people love it," say the very excited American managers, Cy Waits and Shawn Chester.

Veterans of the Vegas club scene, Waits and Chester are amazed by the passion for gambling and spending they now see in Macau.

"When things are really kicking in the casino," says Chester, "you can't get a seat at a table [where betting is] at $20,000 a hand. People are betting over your backs, four or five people deep."

The casinos are doing everything they can to keep it that way.

Lucky Eights and Dragons

While Macau is drawing gamblers and tourists from across Asia and beyond, the biggest business is coming from mainland Chinese citizens. Macau offers the only legalized gambling on Communist Chinese territory, and the government is allowing millions of mainlanders to try their luck in Macau.

And the casinos are catering to the tastes of their Chinese clients -- offering more table games, and serving Chinese tea instead of cocktails.

But, the boom isn't finished yet. The Sands is building a massive, 10-million-square-foot resort on land reclaimed from Macau's harbor. When it's finished, it will sport 10 new hotels and casinos.

The Darker Side

Despite all its new-found popularity, there is still a darker side to Macau that could spoil the party one day. The island has long been a haven for organized crime, just as in the early days of Las Vegas.

Just a few years ago, Macau was still wracked by violent gang wars, battles for control of money laundering, loan sharking and prostitution. And despite the new look, the vices are still around for the taking in a place where gambling is the number one industry.

Still, authorities say they are cracking down on crime. And they are determined to Macau become a tourist destination built on more than just gambling.

Helena de Senna Fernandes, a Macau tourism official, proudly points out that Macau was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site last year, a nod to the city's history, culture, and centuries-old Portuguese and Chinese architecture.

Senna Fernandes says Macau's growing prosperity, the growing number of investors and tourists are evidence that Macau's "darker image" is a thing of the past.

"Law and order," she says, "is definitely very much the order of the day."

Law and order … and, place your bets. America's biggest casino operators, the government of Macau, and a few hundred million potential visitors from China are gambling that betting big on Macau will pay off.

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