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May 17, 2004

Gambling on China

First Las Vegas casino opens in Macau

By Steve Friess

MACAU, CHINA--The shrill noise of drills, saws, and the occasional Chinese expletive fill the vast hall. More than 200 baccarat tables, still sheathed in plastic, lie in curved rows across a 170,000-square-foot casino floor. Off to the side, gaggles of slot machines patiently stand at attention, awaiting their assigned stations. Above, an LCD screen with a conspicuous blank square at the center flickers during yet another test.

Hundreds of workers scurry frantically, charged with organizing this chaos by the middle of the month. "When this is done," property spokesperson Alpha Padilla gushes as she glances down at the casino from what will be a mammoth and ornate tea lounge, "there will be nothing like it in Macau."

That's true, but claiming the Sands Macau as a novelty just for Macau shortchanges the revolution it portends. When it opens, the casino will deliver to the region the newest American cultural export: Las Vegas itself.

Colonial life. The Las Vegas Sands Inc., parent company for the property and owner of Sin City's Venetian Resort, is one of two Vegas-based gaming corporations set to barrel into this Chinese province with the promise of reforming it from a seedy but quaint former Portuguese colony into a premier tourist destination as well as a cash cow of unimaginable scale.

Sands and Wynn Resorts Ltd. landed Macanese gaming licenses in 2002 after officials decided to end Hong Kong billionaire Stanley Ho's 40-year monopoly. Each may build an unlimited number of casino-resorts, and Sands has already announced plans to construct a "Macau Strip" over the next decade. This will feature as many as 20 resorts totaling more than 50,000 rooms punctuated by a half-size replica of the Venetian on more than 1,500 acres of reclaimed land. "This market is so huge and the opportunity is so incredible that we don't think we can build enough resort capacity to fill the market," Sands president William Weidner says. Wynn has been less public with its plans but is expected to break ground on a 580-room, $550 million property this year.

The only place in Asia with full-fledged legalized gambling sits within a five-hour flight of 3 billion people--nearly half the world's population. Vegas, by contrast, is the same distance from only 450 million people. Ho's 12 small casinos generated $3.5 billion last year in gaming revenue; the 44 on the Las Vegas Strip snagged $4.8 billion in 2003. A relaxation of travel restrictions for some mainland Chinese promises to vastly expand the market here. "Macau is without question one of the best gaming opportunities in the world and may be one of the biggest business opportunities in the world," says analyst Marc Falcone of Deutsche Bank.

Stroll through Ho's signature Casino Lisboa at 4 p.m. one day, and this cramped labyrinth of dark-paneled parlors is jammed with gamblers five deep at baccarat tables calling out bets from behind a crush of people. Slot machines line corridors so squalid they resemble bus-station hallways. And this, insists veteran Macau-goer Zhu Feng of Shenzhen, China, is "the best of the lot."

The Sands Macau, with its sweeping 88-foot atrium and walls of glass allowing a generous flood of natural light, should be an attractive alternative. Yet it's only an appetizer, not a true Vegas resort. Its 51 suites, each between 1,000 and 8,000 square feet and overlooking the South China Sea, are primarily for high rollers. Weidner says the aim is to create a gambling space with a sample of the Las Vegas pizazz the Chinese admire from countless Hollywood films.

There are uniquely Asian touches. Slot players win if they line up lucky eights, not sevens, as per local superstitions. Instead of craps or poker tables, which hold little appeal here, baccarat dominates, and a smattering of pai-gow and roulette-style games fill out the room. The tea terrace is as important here as any bar, and the tea master can dispense traditional medicinal herbs. Plus, everything from the position of the long building with a facade of gold reflective glass and black granite to the look of the 65-foot, 6,000-bulb chandelier in the main foyer was vetted by a feng shui master, Weidner says.

But if the Vegas Strip, itself a mishmash of homages to other cities, is about to be transplanted to the Far East, what becomes of the original Sin City? Will all those Asian "whales," or high rollers, still swim the Pacific and beach themselves in the desert? Falcone and other industry watchers note that the expansion of gambling across the United States has merely minted new recruits hoping one day to make the pilgrimage to the neon mecca. That's exactly what Zhu Feng hopes. "My aim," he says as he slides a handful of Hong Kong dollars into a Casino Lisboa slot machine, "is to win enough money to go see Las Vegas." The real one, that is.

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