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.