Casino hub Macau shows all its cards, from egg tarts to fireworks, to draw tourists

Farah Master

MACAU, March 29 (Reuters) - Overseas visitors are an

increasingly common sight in China’s gambling territory of Macau

which is trying to diversify an economic model that has depended

on mainland high rollers for more than a decade.

The economy in the tiny former Portuguese colony, billed the

Las Vegas of the East, has been pounded over the last two years

by a drop in Chinese gamblers due to President Xi Jinping's

anti-corruption campaign and a slowing economy.

Now the government has hearkened calls to reposition Macau

as a tourism destination, with the number of international

visitors growing 8 percent last year from 2015, compared with

those from greater China edging up only 0.1 percent.

Once a sleepy backwater, with its colonial-era hotels,

waterside banyan trees, slightly sleazy night life and

occasional gangland killings, Macau has tidied up and

diversified its act since its return to China in 1999 with huge

new resorts, music festivals and even an international fireworks

display competition.

Gamblers from mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan account

for more than 90 percent of total visitors, but a shift away

from the tables is slowly emerging.

Foreigners stuck out through the crowds of mainlanders in

shops skirting U.S. billionaire Sheldon Adelson’s Venetian,

owned by Sands China Ltd. Indian families tucked into

naan and curry in the restaurant while tourists of other

nationalities took photos against the backdrop of the facade of

St Paul's, a Jesuit church that burnt down in 1835.

"We just want to see the old town. We are more interested in

the tourist attractions," said Rachel Mumberson, 33, a teacher

from Singapore. "We definitely didn't come here for gambling."

Hotel rooms are set to increase by 40 percent and two new

mega resorts are due to open in the next two years at a time

when revenues have started to rebound due to a return of VIP

spenders.

"TOO MUCH RELIANCE ON MAINLAND"

While income generated from the big spenders is unlikely to

be replaced anytime soon, per capita spending from non-Chinese

has accelerated, with tourists from Singapore, Japan and

Malaysia nearly matching those from mainland China, government

statistics from the fourth quarter show.

"In the past decade, we relied too much on mainland

tourists," said Agnes Lam, head of Macau Civic Power, an

organisation which focuses on political and social issues.

"I think the increase of foreign tourists is very important

to Macau and will actually make the tourist industry here become

more healthy,” said Lam, who is also an assistant professor at

the University of Macau.

Both Macau and the former British colony of Hong Kong are

designated "special administrative regions" and allowed certain

freedoms not enjoyed on the Communist Party-ruled mainland.

As in Hong Kong, Macau's retailers and local businesses had

geared themselves towards mainland tourists selling cosmetics,

jewellery and even milk powder - after a health scare in China -

forcing the closure of home-style stores and small businesses.

Industry experts have called for Macau to differentiate

itself as rival casino hubs mushroom around Asia, from the

Philippines and Singapore to Japan which recently legalised

casino gambling.

Officials have responded by touting Macau’s history, culture

and Portuguese-influenced gastronomy rather than its casinos,

with the tourism body targeting a range of high profile

marketing campaigns.

"Macau is unknown in Europe," said Kurt Ornstein, 68,

visiting from Switzerland with his wife and a big fan of Macau

Portuguese egg tarts. "Nobody knows about Macau."

(Additional reporting by Joyce Zhou and Katy Wong; Editing by

Nick Macfie)