A decade of wonder

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

As a recent Macau resident I can honestly say its development has been nothing short of profound. During my first visit to the former Portuguese enclave in 1991, I recall eagerly catching the hydrofoil home to Hong Kong, never wanting to return to the hovel I had visited that afternoon.

During a visit 15 years later, I was awestruck. The most striking things were the neon signs and glitzy facades of Macau's skyline - most prominently that of the Sands, Wynn and the Grand Lisboa.

Macau's cachet has risen markedly - from what was once regarded as a sleepy, sleazy 'one game' town to a top destination on the world map. Five years ago, even seasoned travellers would have asked where Macau was; these days, Macau is just about on everybody's lips.

Its most significant economic achievement in the past decade has been liberalisation of the gaming industry in 2002, which resulted in awarding gaming concession and sub-concessions to Las Vegas Sands, Wynn Resorts, Galaxy, the partnership of Pansy Ho and MGM Mirage, and the partnership of Lawrence Ho's Melco and Australian PBL, in addition to Stanley's Ho's STDM. Since then Macau has continued to reach new highs in annual gaming revenue.

'Macau's lack of governmental control over the development is actually a significant positive factor as it permitted the evolution of a pseudo laissez faire gaming industry,' said Ben Lee, head of IGamiX Management & Consulting.

Bob Moon, president of MGM Grand Macau, believes liberalised gaming allowed for significant capital investment throughout the decade.

More tangibly, Macau's gross domestic product per capita has gone from US$17,500 in 2000 to US$28,400 last year, according to Index Mundi - 62 per cent growth in eight years. The CIA World Factbook ranks Macau 32nd alongside Taiwan on the same basis.

According to the 2009 report on the Index of Economic Freedom, Macau ranks as the sixth freest economy in the Asia-Pacific, just behind Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. The city ranks 21st among 179 economies worldwide.

It has integrated further with the mainland, not just because droves of punters seek their fortunes in the Lotus City but through the mainland and Macau Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement (Cepa), signed in 2003, which help rescue Macau's shrinking manufacturing sector, according to Charles Choy, from AmCham Macau. Under Cepa, '273 Macau products are now exempted from import customs into the mainland, which assisted the development of manufacturing and tourism industries', Choy says.

During the past decade, Macau has vastly developed its convention and meetings sector through integrated resorts such as the Venetian, City of Dreams, MGM & Wynn Macau. Besides meetings and exhibitions, there is also much more entertainment, making Macau a Pearl River excursion hub. The Cotai Strip has the potential to become a world-class convention destination.

People's welfare has not been forgotten. The government introduced special wealth-sharing measures last year and extended them to this year because of the tough financial times. It says it wants to help low-income families and has introduced medical and housing subsidies with this in mind.

Macau is also much safer now than in the late 1990s, when gangland slayings made headlines. Its 2005 entry on Unesco's 25 World Heritage List sites is a major achievement and shows that despite incredible development, historic buildings can be saved and be part of the 'Macau experience'.

It is the 31st designated World Heritage site in China, thus increasing its tourism and global visibility. This new cultural tourism status ensures preservation of its heritage for visitors and residents for generations to come.

'After living in Macau I understand how important heritage, culture and lifestyle are for the Macanese,' Moon says.

Similarly, Robert Kirby, president and chief executive of the Kirby Group, thinks overseas workers and expats 'have had a cultural impact and made the city and its people more dynamic and colourful. People have more exposure to different cultures and eventually widen our world views,' he says.

Legally and politically, the biggest achievements of the past decade have been the success of the Basic Law and maintenance of 'one country, two systems'.

The civil law system has shown resilience, stability and maturity. Macau's courts have maintained their independence and been able to make landmark decisions, such as in the graft trial of former secretary for transport and public works Ao Man Long.

Local lawyer Carlos Simoes believes that when considering laws for areas or industries that are unregulated, such as pre-sale of units and licensing of property brokers, the focus should not be on the 'software' (the laws) but on the 'hardware' (the people and institutions that apply those laws), which requires continuous training, support and supervision. Simply put: existing codes need to be used better.

'The government needs to be more persistent in the application of the existing regulations,' Simoes says.

Macau's future looks bright, with education improving and civic engagement becoming more robust, as voter turnout for the recent election showed.

Its real destiny is to become the premier entertainment, resort and gaming spot in Asia and a world-class destination. While gaming is now the main drawcard for tourists, there will be a gradual shift to non-gaming revenues and longer visits as Macau becomes better known as an entertainment and resort destination.

Macau has the potential to keep flourishing because of its mainland links. But it will require a strong government to ensure residents are kept informed of future plans, their impact and the likely outcomes.