By Peter Brieger
HONG KONG, January 3, 2011 (AFP) – Casinos in Macau cashed in a record 23.5 billion U.S. dollars last year, according to official figures Monday which analysts said trumped the Las Vegas Strip by about four times.
The revenue figure was a 57.8 percent increase over 2009, cementing the former Portuguese colony as the worldâ€™s biggest gaming hub, thanks largely to the millions of mainland Chinese punters who descend on it each year.
But the governments of China and its special region of Macau are growing worried about the vast sums of money flowing into the cityâ€™s economy and have already imposed several restrictions to try and cap its runaway growth.
Macau’s huge jackpot comes even as regional rivals including Singapore have opened glitzy new casinos to grab a chunk of the massive Asian market. Some industry experts have predicted Asia will eclipse the entire U.S. gaming market over the next few years.
Macau’s casinos raked in 188.3 billion patacas (23.5 billion US dollars) in 2010, compared with 119.3 billion patacas in 2009, the cityâ€™s Gaming Inspection and Coordination Bureau said.
That total is about four-times higher than the six billion US dollars that gamblers are thought to have spent on the Las Vegas Strip in 2010, according to Hong Kong-based brokerage CLSA.
The Chinese territory also set a new monthly record in December, raking in 18.88 billion patacas, about 66.4 percent higher than a year earlier.
“We were not expecting it to be so strong in December,” Aaron Fischer, a CLSA gaming analyst, told AFP.
“We thought it would fall off a bit in the last few weeks (of the month) but it didn’t. Historically, Christmas is not a big gambling time.”
The gaming boomtown’s revenue is driven largely by high-roller gamblers, including many wealthy Chinese tourists who have been riding high on the country’s surging economy, he said.
“It’s not just a Macau or gaming thing,” Fischer added. “There are a huge amount of mainland Chinese traveling and spending money.”
Macau has posted a sharp revenue increase since mid-2009, continuing to smash monthly records as it shrugs off a downturn during the global financial crisis.
Handed back to China in 1999, Macau is the only Chinese city where casino gambling is allowed and has seen its fortunes steadily soar since opening up to foreign competition in 2002.
The most recent yearly figures are about four times higher than the 46 billion patacas in gaming revenue which Macau recorded in 2005.
But that growth has caused the Chinese and Macau governments to express concerns about the cityâ€™s gambling-dependent economy and skyrocketing rents, with Beijing imposing visa restrictions on mainland citizens in 2009.
Macau has also tightened restrictions on immigrant labour due to pressure from home-grown labor groups, including banning foreigners with only tourist visas from working in the city.
That has caused headaches for casino operators, including U.S. operator Las Vegas Sands, which has seen a 4.1 billion U.S. dollar project on the cityâ€™s lucrative Cotai strip repeatedly delayed.
In March, the Macau government said it would cap the number of gambling tables in the cityâ€™s casinos, making expansion plans more difficult.
Macau’s government last month rejected separate applications from a Sands unit and local casino tycoon Stanley Hoâ€™s SJM Holdings to develop another Cotai site, saying it would no longer grant land for casinos without a public tender.
But those measures – even a new round of visa restrictions – may not do much to dent the cityâ€™s red-hot economy, said Davis Fong, director of the Institute for the Study of Commercial Gaming at the University of Macau.
“If there are no further government policy measures then I’d say the gaming revenue figure would continue to grow,” he told AFP.