Vast new casino raises the stakes in Macau

The world’s largest casino-resort, a gaudy mix of baccarat, shops and Venetian canals, opened this week, aiming to accelerate Macau’s heady transformation from gambling haven to Asia’s top entertainment draw.

The $2,4-billion Venetian Macao resort, built on a spit of reclaimed land called the Cotai Strip, seeks to capitalise on the casino boom by getting the millions of visitors to stay for more than just a turn at the tables.

With 3 000 hotel rooms, a theatre, a 15 000-seat stadium and 350 shops, as well as the gambling arenas, it is the anchor of the Cotai project to recreate the Las Vegas Strip in the southern Chinese territory.

Sheldon Adelson, chief executive of Las Vegas Sands, which is operating the Venetian, said it was “the beginning of what has been a dream of mine”.

“We are quite certain we are going to meet the expectations of everybody that has anticipated this arrival,” he told reporters.

Adelson said he believes that there is a pent-up demand for the resort and the rest of the Cotai Strip, which will eventually be home to more than a dozen top-end resorts offering more than 20 000 hotel rooms.

The Venetian Macao features 870 gaming tables and 3 400 slot machines — planned to rise to 6 000 — on floors as big as three football pitches.

Its shopping mall is woven between three canals, complete with a fleet of gondolas and fake sky.

William Weidner, president of Las Vegas Sands, said he expected the market to change, claiming the new complex offered something radically different from rivals.

“The growth in table games played here has been extraordinary since Sands opened. What this property represents is a whole new market segment drawing people from much further away,” he said.

In 2001, Macau liberalised its monopolistic gaming market once dominated by local tycoon Stanley Ho, and Sands was the first major American company to open a casino here in 2004.

Macau has a population of just over half a million, but last year welcomed 22-million visitors — a figure expected to rise to 26-million in 2007.

Last year, gaming revenues in Macau totalled $7,2-billion, overtaking the Las Vegas Strip for the first time.

The territory’s continuing expansion means it is also likely to surpass the total gaming take of the greater Las Vegas area this year.

Adelson said he hoped to make back the $2,4-billion investment in the Venetian within five years.

The Venetian strategy is to lure Asian families and business clients into longer stays, as well as the high-rolling gamblers who have fuelled Macau’s boom.

Currently, the average visitor to Macau stays just 1,2 days and Sands want to stretch that to 3,5 days at their resort with world-class entertainment and convention offerings, in the same way that the original Venetian in Las Vegas transformed Nevada.

The shopping mall will feature luxury brands such as Tiffany and Versace to try to attract wealthy Asians, particularly Chinese, while Sands said that 44 conventions have already been booked at the resort.

Adelson’s bet that he can attract a much broader market is unprecedented in Asia, but recent restrictions over mainland Chinese visitors here have raised the question of whether the Cotai Strip is sustainable in the long term.

Analysts say his bet could pay off, although they believe the Venetian will not be able to rely on poaching customers from other Macau casinos.

“Some casinos have been here for ages and they have their own loyal VIP customers. They won’t switch because of a new casino,” said Fong Ka-chio, director of the Institute for the Study of Commercial Gaming in Macau.

“Operators will find a way to retain their customers. It’s very unlikely that the Venetian will take away all the business,” he said. — AFP

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