Macau’s 6 casino operators get licences; Malaysia’s Genting is out

The Studio City Casino resort at the Cotai strip in Macau. The announcement signals stability and continuity for the Macau operators. PHOTO: AFP

MACAU – Macau’s government said on Saturday that its six incumbent casino operators would be given new licences to operate in the world’s biggest gambling hub from January, with Malaysian operator Genting missing out on a spot.

The highly anticipated announcement signals stability and continuity for the Macau operators that have invested more than US$50 billion (S$69 billion) in the Chinese special administrative region in the past 20 years.

Officials in Macau, the world’s biggest casino hub, told a news briefing that the main considerations for granting licences included ensuring local employment, developing overseas tourist markets and developing non-gaming projects.

The new licences, expected to take effect at the beginning of 2023, are allowed to carry a maximum term of 10 years, according to Macau’s gaming law. 

Genting earlier emerged as a strong contender to unseat an incumbent Macau casino operator for a new licence due to its strong non-gaming track record and mass market appeal, fitting key criteria for Beijing that is adamant that Macau diversify away from gambling and attract foreign tourists.

The company, headed by Malaysian Chinese billionaire Lim Kok Thay, went head to head with Sands China, Wynn Macau, Galaxy Entertainment, MGM China, Melco Resorts and SJM Holdings, which have all operated in Macau since 2002.

If any incumbents had lost, they would have had to return the casino area to the government for free at the end of 2022, making it financially unviable to operate the remaining facilities, as gambling accounts for 80 to 90 per cent of its total revenue.

Analysts have said a win by Genting would have sent tremors throughout Macau’s gambling industry, as the six companies are tied closely to the economic fortunes of the city and employ tens of thousands of workers.

Macau, the world’s biggest gaming hub by revenue, raked in US$36 billion in gambling revenues in 2019 – six times that of the Las Vegas Strip, before Covid-19 decimated it by 70 per cent to US$10.8 billion in 2021.

The announcement concludes a sweeping change to Macau’s gambling industry that started in September 2021, when the authorities proposed new gaming regulations to strengthen government control over casino operations and crack down on junkets’ role in soliciting high-rolling bettors from mainland China, where gambling remains illegal.

The law was passed in June and the bidding process for new gaming licences started at the same time, with existing ones due to expire by the end of 2022.  

The decision to retain all existing operators eliminated a major uncertainty facing an industry hit by the double whammy of Covid-19-induced tourism drought and China’s crackdown on high rollers to curb capital outflow.

By reshaping Macau’s gaming landscape, Beijing is pushing the enclave to reduce its reliance on gambling and diversify into other sectors such as tourism, conferences, Chinese medicine and finance. 

The licence holders must prioritise the safeguarding of local employment, the development of the overseas tourism market and investment in non-gaming businesses, Secretary for Administration and Justice Cheong Weng Chon told reporters.

“The operation and development of our gaming industry has come to a certain scale today, but there are also some problems,” he said. “For example, the source of our tourists is too concentrated. It’s not healthy.”

Macau relies on mainland China for the bulk of its visitors, and its tourism has been severely battered during the Covid-19 pandemic, as Beijing’s zero tolerance to the virus means repeated lockdowns and visa restrictions that keep people from travelling.

In July, when the enclave faced its biggest outbreak, the city shut down for two weeks, leaving casinos with almost zero income. 

While the final contracts will stipulate how much operators need to invest in developing the overseas market and non-gaming sectors, as well as specific projects, in a force majeure, some of the contract terms and conditions could be temporarily waived, Mr Cheong said. 

Melco chairman Lawrence Ho said the company is committed to Macau and its development as Asia’s premier tourist destination, according to a statement on Saturday. 

SJM said in a separate statement that it is confident in Macau’s long-term growth prospects and is committed to the sustainable development of the local economy. REUTERS, BLOOMBERG

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