Macau hits tourism record as casinos boom

Tourism is on a roll in tiny gambling haven Macau, with a record 22 million people visiting the tiny southern Chinese territory’s booming casinos in 2006, tourist chiefs said.

The former Portuguese enclave of just 450,000 people was swamped by 12 million tourists from mainland China alone.

Together, tourists spent USD 21 billion (AUD 26.69 billion) on gambling, hotels, food and booze – all of which made Macau the world’s most profitable casino city, beating even Las Vegas‘ famous strip.

But while officials hailed the figures, they warned the next few years would pose challenges – none more urgent than a labour shortage that threatens to slow the current break-neck casino growth.

„The tourism industry in Macau is in a phase of rapid growth,“ said Chui Sai On, secretary for social affairs and culture in the Macau government.

„However, we are aware of the challenges ahead, including the shortage of manpower,“ Chui added.

Tourism is Macau’s principle source of income, accounting directly and indirectly for about 80 per cent of the economy, according to economists.

Tax revenue from gaming alone is sufficient to cover the city’s AUD 2.29 billion annual budget.

Chinese tourists lead the charge into Macau, with arrivals up 14.5 percent on 2005, boosted by a further relaxation of travel restrictions on the mainland.

Hong Kong, once Macau’s main source of visitors, came in second with arrivals up 23 per cent to seven million.

Macau Government Tourism Office director Joao Manuel Costa Antunes said his organisation was keen to develop the industry and this year would promote the city’s business travel sector, particularly the meetings and incentives (MICE) market.

„We must diversify our tourism to ensure stability of growth,“ Antunes said.

Macau’s once moribund gaming industry has blossomed since a 2001 law ended tycoon Stanley Ho’s 40-year monopoly and allowed overseas investors to operate gaming halls here.

Las Vegas giants, led by the Sands Corporation, moved in and transformed the sector, building and planning some 25 new casino-hotel complexes.

Chui said the governbment was concerned about the city’s labour crunch, which has forced casinos to hire staff from overseas, much to the anger of unions, who have taken to the streets in protest.

„We have commissioned a report from our local tourism instute to find out just what the labour needs will be in the coming years,“ he said.

„The government has already said there will be new import labour policies to address this problem.“

Growth in Macau is expected to continue in double-digit figures for years to come, according to a report by credit ratings agency Standard and Poor’s, which said the city’s fundametals were strong.

It said that as long as earnings growth continued at current levels, the city’s casinos would be raking in more than all of Las Vegas‘ within three to four years.

Similarly, the number of hotel rooms is expected to mushroom. While there are only 13,000 hotel rooms currently available, with 17 large hotels under construction and more in the pipeline, that figure is likely to treble to 40,000 within four to 10 years, Antunes said.