It seems unbelievable that the small city state of Macau could topple the bright lights of Las Vegas from its perch, but the Special Administrative Region of Macau has, against all odds, cemented its place as the world’s casino capital. It’s a far cry from the city’s heritage as a former Portuguese colony, with three centuries of rule by Portugal. The city was originally leased to the Portuguese as a trading post in 1557, enabling Portugal to improve trading links between the Mediterranean and the Far East.
The city was eventually governed by the Portuguese under the authority of the Chinese and it wasn’t until the eve of the Millennium that it would be returned to the People’s Republic. At the time of the transfer in 1999, Macau’s casino scene had something of a grubby reputation. Its seedy underbelly was manipulated and controlled by the city’s gangs and criminals and the casinos were nothing like the multi-million-dollar resorts we see today.
The Rebirth of Macau’s Casino Scene
The Chinese government deserves tremendous credit for helping Macau to clean up the act of its casinos, creating a string of new VIP gaming rooms that would appeal to the city’s highest-spending players. These exclusive customers would be granted special privileges and rewards for playing at these sub-contracted rooms. China recognized a gap in the market, given that the revenue generated by these high-rollers was the equivalent of two-thirds of its total revenue by 2013. In fact, as of 2011, taxes from Macau’s casinos equated to 81% of all tax revenue collected that year.
Just a few years after returning to Chinese rule, Macau began to tender licenses for overseas casino operators in a bid to create a casino hub to rival the likes of 24/7 hot spots including Las Vegas and Atlantic City. In fact, some of the biggest names on the Vegas Strip such as MGM, Wynn Resorts and Las Vegas Sands were enticed here, bringing with them iconic casino resorts that would combine vast casino floors with luxury hotel accommodation and high-end dining and entertainment.
A City Gripped by Baccarat Fever
A more detailed look at Macau’s offerings on the casino floors shows a distinct advantage towards one of China’s most popular table games. The Chinese love affair with baccarat overshadows all other types of game, including video slots. Its simplistic game play, low house edge and the fact that fate plays such a big role keeps people coming back for more from the mainland. In 2018, gross revenue from Macau’s baccarat tables alone hit $12.7 billion, up $10 billion from $2.7 billion in 2008.
Macau’s casino customers have therefore struggled to embrace other card games like Texas Hold’em poker. There is no doubt that Las Vegas is still very much a dream destination for poker lovers, with some of the Strip’s poker rooms considered a mecca for Texas Hold’em, staging the World Series of Poker (WSOP) each year in the heart of the Nevada desert. Culturally, Macau’s poker rooms and tables have a much more serious feel, attracting fewer recreational players, which can be a turn-off for tourist players looking for a quick thrill.
The casino resorts along Macau’s Cotai Strip don’t do anything by halves. The Venetian Macao, modeled closely on its sister resort in Las Vegas, is now the biggest casino on the planet and the seventh-biggest property in the world by floor area. 1.6 million square feet of retail space and 550,000 square feet of gaming space underlines the sheer scale of Macau’s operations – and that’s just one of 38 casino resorts situated on the Macau Peninsula and Taipa Island.
History Oozes from Macau’s Every Pore
There is a lot more to Macau than meets the eye too. Huge swathes of the city are UNESCO World Heritage sites, including the awe-inspiring Ruins of St Paul’s and the Mediterranean-inspired Senado Square. Macau is also home to the world’s original fusion cuisine, with Macanese flavours blending Mediterranean and Asian spices and cooking techniques to masterful effect. The Macanese culture is unfortunately dying out through the generations, so fanatical foodies are flocking here before it’s too late. One thing is for sure, its casino culture isn’t going anywhere for a long time yet.