Gondolas cruise down the Grand Canal – under blue skies – and in the distance, opera singers belt out Verdi. Just another summer’s day in Venice? Not quite.
The cruise in question is at the Venetian resort in Macau. The skies are fake, the Grand Canal is indoors and the gondolas are powered by electric motors. The whole site is the size of an airport, and houses the world’s largest casino. It is the day after China’s Lunar New Year and milling around the Venetian’s version of the Piazza San Marco are crowds of mainland Chinese tourists. In fact, it would be no exaggeration to say there were probably more tourists in Macau’s Venetian over Chinese New Year than in the city of Venice itself.
Chinese New Year – a week-long holiday that this year occurred in the last week of January – is the highest of high seasons for Macau. The weather may stink, but no matter. There are gambling tables galore where punters can see if their luck is any better this year than last. The Venetian has a dizzying 550,000 square feet of casino floorspace – that’s about the size of 10 football pitches – and even at 9am almost every table is surrounded by Chinese gamblers, and the sweet stench of tobacco.
The Chinese smoke 1.7 trillion cigarettes per year and after a couple of days in Macau it is easy to see how. Indeed, in what is a rare scene in this day and age – where smokers can barely even light-up in a bar – your correspondent shared an elevator for 31 floors with someone nursing a lit cigarette.
Full visitor statistics are not yet available, but the Macau Daily estimated around 200,000 tourists were arriving (and leaving) Macauper day during the peak of the Lunar New Year holiday.
It may sound like boomtime, but the truth is that Macau is experiencing relatively tough times. Visitor arrivals dropped in December for the first time in 66 months. Gaming revenues at the casinos have fallen in four out of five months. In fact, it is thought that January could see a 17% drop from a year earlier, with a mere 8.57 billion patacas ($1.08 billion) punted, according to the news agency, Lusa.
The culprit? About eight months ago the Chinese government instigated travel restrictions – in order to curtail the movements of some of its baccarat-addicted citizens. Prior to June they could lose their shirts in Macau twice a month, but under the new rules, they can only visit once a quarter. Adding to the casinos’ misery, there has been a major decline in the number of ‘High-rollers’ coming through the doors. Although less numerous, these mega-gamblers are the most profitable segment of the market. There are many reasons for their declining numbers, the current financial crisis being prominent among them.
But in the days immediately after Chinese New Year, the financial crisis seemed temporarily forgotten. The Venetian’s 3,000 suites were full and its 1.6 million square feet of shops were crowded. It even took 35 minutes of queuing to buy a bowl of congee in the resort’s food court. Then again, maybe the congee queue suggest the high-rollers are counting their pennies too?
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