Gambling hub Macau shrugs off China downturn with tourist surge

Visitors at the Parisian Macao casino resort in Macau on Jan 17, 2019.
Visitors at the Parisian Macao casino resort in Macau on Jan 17, 2019. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

MACAU (AFP) - China's slowdown and simmering trade war with the United States appear to have had little impact on the gambling enclave of Macau which on Wednesday (Jan 23) announced a surge in tourist arrivals for last year.

The semi-autonomous city of just 620,000 people - which rakes in five times the gaming revenue of Las Vegas - said 35.8 million people visited last year, a 10 per cent jump on the year before.

Macau's gambling revenues were hit hard in 2014 when Chinese President Xi Jinping announced a crackdown on corrupt officials.

The city had long been a playpen for China's elites and a useful way for the wealthy and corrupt to siphon money overseas.

The sudden slump pushed tourism officials to look for ways to become less reliant on the casino sector although in the last two years the city's gaming fortunes have bounced back.

Macau has recorded 28 straight months of gaming revenue growth, according to a Bloomberg News analysis, although growth towards the end of last year slowed to single digits, a potential sign of jitters mirroring the mainland's economic slowdown.

Tourism officials said last year's spike showed that their push to advertise Macau as more than just a gambling hub - such as promoting the former Portuguese colony's culinary heritage - was paying dividends.

 
 
 

They also said numbers were boosted by the October opening of a new bridge connecting the gambling hub to the mainland city of Zhuhai and neighbouring Hong Kong, with 1.05 million visitors crossing so far.

The bridge has provoked complaints from locals in both Macau and Hong Kong that too many Chinese mainlanders are coming in each day to overcrowded districts.

Ms Helena de Senna Fernandes, the city's tourism director, admitted that 35 million was "quite a big number" and said officials would try to encourage more tourists to spread out into less visited places within the city.

"Of course we have to take into account the concerns of local residents," she told reporters.

The figures show that Macau is still overwhelmingly reliant on visitors from Hong Kong and the mainland, who made up 32.6 million arrivals.

Visits by mainlanders, who account for 90 per cent of Macau's gamblers, were up 13 per cent at 25 million. But international tourist arrivals dropped 1.1 per cent to 3.1 million.

Locals and some industry insiders have fretted that the new bridge will increase the number of daily visitors, who spend less than those who stay in hotels.

However, last year's figures showed that overnight visitors increased 7.2 per cent and currently account for 51.7 per cent of all arrivals.