Tables turn once again

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 November, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 November, 2009, 12:00am

Macau's gaming industry has for the past decade been going through what many punters endure during a single night on the tables.

There have been ups and downs - but it has never given up trying. And the consensus is that it can only get better.

'I think things have surprised everybody,' says David Green, the director of gaming practice at PriceWaterhouse Coopers (Macau).

'I don't think anyone would have expected the sort of growth that has occurred. I often joke that I'm the supreme conservative and if you had followed my estimate the market would be about half the size of what it is now.

'But there's undoubtedly been an enormous unsatisfied demand for gambling [in the region] and the one thing that has happened is now there is no supply constraints. So you're probably seeing something that is much truer to the real market picture than what you saw in the days when SJM was just running 340 tables.'

The greatest change in the past 10 years of course is that the Macau government ended the monopoly enjoyed for 40 years by Stanley Ho Hung-sun and his SJM group, handing out three licences - to SJM, Las Vegas Sands and Wynn Resorts.

But sub-concessions have since let the likes of Melco's massive City of Dreams enter the fray and, while the original - and much publicised - dream of 20 casinos filling the pavements along the Cotai Strip have been hit by the economic downturn and a little bit of overreaching, it now seems only a matter of time before that plan is fully realised.

'Money on the ground is obviously an enduring benefit for Macau,' Green says. 'If you were to total up all the investments made here just in casino and related facilities, you're probably up around U$15 billion now and counting.

'You're certainly going to see up to US$20 billion spent in the period from 2004 - which is when the Sands opened - through to the end of next year.'

After the lull in action brought on by the combined effects of the world economic crisis and Beijing's decision to restrict visa allocations - a move that is now being eased - Macau's gaming revenue has continued to flourish.

Initially, people wondered how long it would take for the city to compete with Las Vegas. It took until 2006, just two years from the opening of the first new casino, for the city to leave Vegas in the shade, that year raking in US$6.8 billion to the American city's US$$6.6 billion.

Casino revenue rose to HK$10.8 billion in September, according to figures from the Portuguese news agency Lusa, up 52 per cent from last year, when the city was really hurting. And Green believes much of that is down to the fact that the operators are - with a few exceptions - getting things right.

'I think you'll probably find that the industry has grown at least fivefold since 2002 when the concessions were issued,' he says.

'But there are a number of other issues too. I think now it is a much better regulated business than it used to be in the sense that there has been a greater receptivity from government in terms of embracing good practice from elsewhere. Macau does have legacy issues - there's no doubt about that. But the significance of those legacy issues is diminishing.

'Bringing in new ideas and exposing Macau to forums where there are exchanges of contemporary regulatory ideas has made quite a difference.'

More importantly for your average punter, the changes have been felt where they matter most - at the tables.

'Ten years ago Macau was seen by gamblers as Vegas' poor cousin. It was a bit like the Wild West,'' says Australian Andrew Scott, a professional gambler who has been lured to the East to chance his hand at, among other enterprises, the poker competitions that are taking root in Macau. 'There was a perception - partially correct, partially exaggerated - that the place was heavily influenced by gangsters, and therefore not particularly safe. More importantly, gambling choices were limited.'

But he says those choices have since multiplied.

'When the Sands opened in May 2004, everything changed. Now, casinos like the MGM, Sands, Venetian and Wynn are serious competition to Ho's properties,' he says.

'As in any industry, competition is a great thing for customers. Previously baccarat-centric, Macau has opened itself up to other people, other games, other styles. There is a mini-poker boom in Macau. Once upon a time you would never see a craps table in Macau - now they are visible. The Chinese are embracing these new games too, and the expansion will no doubt continue.'

Grant Bowie has been witnessing those kinds of changes at the MGM Grand as well. Since taking charge at the complex's opening in December, there have been shifts in the games played and the people playing them, he says.

'I think gaming machines are starting to show signs of significant growth,' Bowie says. 'Table games are still dominated by baccarat and will continue to be dominated by baccarat. But the mix of players has changed because clearly a lot of that has come from the opening up of individual visas from China. In the early days it was dominated by Hong Kong and Taiwan, then came China and that of course has changed things dramatically.'

They wouldn't be coming if their needs were not being met, and Green says the Macau government has played the right hand too.

'I think it has attracted the right operators,' he says. 'I think they generally have proved to be as good as their word in terms of what they've brought to the table. I don't think the economy has helped in terms of the pace of the development but it will come again and I think the operations without exception have indicated they have the ability to deliver. 'There's some that will do better than others obviously, but right now they have all got considerable blue sky.'