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
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
"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
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
"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