Macau may have dethroned the Las Vegas Strip as the world's biggest casino center, according to figures available Wednesday that show the Chinese territory's gambling revenue jumped 22 percent to US$6.95 billion last year.
The former Portuguese enclave has been booming since the government busted up a casino monopoly three years ago and began welcoming U.S. gaming powerhouses like Las Vegas Sands Corp., MGM Mirage Inc. and Wynn Resorts Ltd.
The American companies have been furiously building mega casino and resort projects in the tiny city _ less than one-sixth the size of Washington, D.C. _ on China's southeastern coast. They say they'll do what they did to Las Vegas: transform a seedy, worn-out, crime-ridden town into one of the world's best spots for gambling as well as conventions, glitzy shows, dining and other family entertainment.
Key to Macau's success will be luring the masses of high rollers from mainland China, who are growing richer and tend to bet more at the casino tables than Americans do in Las Vegas.
"Las Vegas doesn't have the radius of the population that is as anxious to come to gamble," Sands Chairman Sheldon Adelson, ranked No. 3 on Forbes' magazine's list of the 400 richest Americans, told The Associated Press in a recent interview.
Sands' promotional material makes the point that this city _ the only place in China where casino gambling is legal _ is located within a two-hour flight from 1 billion people. About 3 billion people _ half the world's population _ in Asia can get to the city within five hours by plane, the company says.
The Las Vegas Strip has yet to announce its full-year revenue figures for 2006, but it would have to bring in nearly US$1 billion in December alone to beat Macau's figure, which was posted with no fanfare on the Web site of its Gaming and Inspection Coordination Bureau.
The Las Vegas Strip has said for the 11 months through November, revenue came to US$6.08 billion. If December's revenue is the same as it was the previous year, the annual total would hit about US$6.57 billion _ just behind Macau.
Last year, Macau's gambling revenue totaled 55.88 billion patacas, or US$6.95 billion, (??5.33 billion), compared to 45.80 billion patacas in 2005, the gaming bureau's Web site said. The figure includes revenue from casinos, lotteries and dog and horse racing.
Still, Macau lags far behind the entire state of Nevada, which raked in US$10.66 billion in 2005, according to the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Despite the recent success, developing Macau is still fraught with many risks. Analysts say they include an economic meltdown in China, a chronic labor shortage or a severe outbreak of bird flu or SARS _ severe acute respiratory syndrome _ which hammered nearby Hong Kong in 2003.
There's also the possibility that a business model that has been wildly successful in one part of the world fails to take off in a foreign market. One example is Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world's largest retailer, which retreated from Germany after failing to repeat the enormous success it had in America.
But Adelson insists that Macau is a sure bet: "There is nothing on the horizon that will interrupt the growth trend that what we in Macau are experiencing," he said.
His archrival, billionaire Steve Wynn, is just as bullish. "The speed of development is dizzying," he said recently. "The population that is seeks to serve is expanding and is economically growing at a rate larger than any other part of the world."
Late last year, Wynn opened his US$1.2 billion Wynn Macau resort, with 600 rooms, designer boutiques, restaurants, spa and swimming pool. The sleek building with a sloping roof is surrounded by gardens and a man-made lake that wows crowds with a musical water shows.
Adelson opened up first in Macau in 2004 with the gleaming Sands Macau, which has been wildly successful. Now the billionaire is developing Macau's Cotai Strip _ an area of reclaimed land that connects two islands: Coloane and Taipa.
He says it will include more than 20 resorts with 60,000 rooms. Adelson's US$2.4 billion Venetian Macau will be part of it, with 3,000 suites on a construction site big enough to park 90 Boeing 747 jumbo jets, the company says. It plans to open later this year.
The next big event in Macau will likely be the opening of the 430-room Grand Lisboa Hotel and Casino. It's the latest effort by Macau casino kingpin Stanley Ho, who lost his gaming monopoly in 2002, to open a modern casino complex that can compete with his Las Vegas rivals. The Grand Lisboa was expected to open within the next month.