Image: Olympic torch in Macau.
Vincent Yu  /  AP
Macau tycoon Stanley Ho, center, runs at the opening ceremony of the Olympic torch relay in the Chinese city of Macau, on Saturday.
updated 5/3/2008 4:59:35 AM ET 2008-05-03T08:59:35

Runners carried the Olympic torch past glitzy Las Vegas-style casinos and pastel colored colonial buildings on Saturday in the Chinese city of Macau — the world’s most lucrative gambling center.

Spectators waved flags, cheered wildly and chanted “Go China!” as the flame toured the former Portuguese enclave that returned to Chinese rule in 1999 and is the only place in the country where casino gambling is legal.

Protests are relatively rare in Macau, a tiny city on China’s southern coast, and the relay went smoothly with no disruptions as two columns of police in blue shorts jogged on each side of the torch bearers.

The torch arrived from Hong Kong, where it completed a relay Friday that also was not disrupted by protesters — a contrast from many other stops during the torch’s 20-nation tour. In several cities, the torch run was marred by pro-Tibet protesters and others demonstrating against China’s human rights record.

The torch parade here often seemed to be more about Chinese pride than the Olympics. One group of students from mainland China wore white T-shirts that said, “I love China.” Others posed with the Chinese flag in front of colonial-style buildings.

Another group held a banner that said, “Love the Chinese race. Build up our country’s reputation.”

Some spectators said they were outraged by the protests in other cities and came out Saturday to show their love for China.

“Macau people feel proud. The Chinese have fulfilled a dream,” said Ip Chi-keong, 46, a civil servant.

“It’s right to show concern for human rights problems, but I question their tactics,” he said.

During the run, the torch passed new Las Vegas-style casinos that have helped this Chinese territory surpass the Las Vegas Strip as the world’s top gambling center.

The relay route also included plenty of colonial-style buildings painted in pastel pink, yellow and peach — structures built when Macau was ruled by Portugal.

Before Macau returned to Chinese rule in 1999, the territory was a darker, more dangerous place where criminal gangs, or triads, waged turf wars with drive-by shootings, kidnappings and car bombs that scared away tourists.

But under Chinese rule, the violent crime rate has dropped and tourists have been flooding into the city, less than one-sixth the size of Washington, D.C. Macau is made of a peninsula on China’s mainland and two islands: Coloane and Taipa.

Like Hong Kong, Macau is governed under a “one country, two systems” formula, designed to give the territory a wide degree of autonomy.

After returning to Chinese rule, the city broke up a monopoly on the gambling business. Casino tycoons from Las Vegas and other places were allowed into the market, creating a big gaming boom.

The magnates include billionaires Steve Wynn of Wynn Resorts Ltd. and Sheldon Adelson of Las Vegas Sands Corp., who opened the $2.4 billion Venetian mega-resort complete with Italian-style gondolas floating down indoor canals.

In 2006, Macau overtook the Las Vegas Strip as the world’s epicenter of gambling. Its casinos rang up $6.95 billion in gambling revenue, while the Strip made $6.69 billion, regulators in the cities said.

Last year, Macau’s casinos raked in more than $10.3 billion in gaming revenue, an increase of 46 percent over the previous year, the government said.

But Macau’s leader, Edmund Ho, recently announced the booming city would not issue any new casino licenses soon. He said it’s time for the government to review the industry’s development before new projects are approved.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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