The first time I visited Macau in 1994, my parents begged me not to go. They were worried that as a South Korean I might be kidnapped by North Koreans. While these fears seem ludicrous now, Macau in the late 1990s was a very different place. Alarming news stories supported my parents' fears: gun fights, bombings and murders linked to feuding triad gangs were regularly reported, and many international corporations warned their employees about the dangers of visiting the enclave.
North Koreans have long used Macau as a base. The former leader's eldest son, Kim Jong-nam, has been based in Macau for the past decade. In 2006, the United States was successful in pressuring Macau's Banco Delta Asia to sever ties with North Korean entities found to be money laundering and counterfeiting.
I enjoyed the more laid-back atmosphere of Macau back then compared with the fast pace and energy in Hong Kong. Macau was a sleepy Portuguese colony then, with quaint faux antique shops, charming colonial buildings and a seedy, smoke-filled casino scene. There were no Michelin-starred restaurants and fine dining centred around hotels such as the Mandarin Oriental, Hyatt Regency and Bela Vista, now the residence of the Portuguese consul. I did try popular stand-alone restaurants such as Fernando,which has a lively atmosphere with enjoyable but unexceptional food.
The last decade has seen Macau transformed from a quiet, yet somewhat dangerous city, to a safe, vibrant international gambling destination. It didn't take long for entire new resorts to spring up. Tourism in Macau is booming, thanks to the well-heeled Chinese. Last year, Asian visitors to Macau accounted for 98 per cent with nearly 60 per cent of the 28 million total visitors being from the mainland. Both the wine and food scene started to change from the moment Macau surpassed Las Vegas in 2006 in gambling revenue. Add to this the elimination of the wine duty in August 2008, and the result is a complete transformation of the dining culture.
Robuchon a Galera was a pioneer in the fine dining scene when it opened in the Hotel Lisboa in 2001. I made annual pilgrimages to the restaurant, considering it a bargain, for food as well as for wine. There was no need for reservations then, even for Friday or Saturday evenings. Often, my table was one of just a few that were occupied. That was 10 years ago, but now the prices for both food and wine have caught up to Hong Kong levels, and there are fewer and fewer bargains to be found on the restaurant's extraordinary 322-page list of more than 7,100 wines.
The latest Michelin guide has allotted more stars to Hong Kong and Macau restaurants than those in London. With many glittering new resorts and hotels competing at the fine dining level, there are now numerous options to enjoy a great meal. The growth in fine dining restaurants coincided with the elimination of wine duties, and since 2008 wine lists have improved tremendously. Besides the restaurants at the Lisboa hotels, which share a common master list, there are many new Macau restaurants that offer a good selection of wines: Canton at the Venetian, Aurora at Altira and Horizons at City of Dreams Macau.
One of the major challenges for the food and beverage industry in Macau is the short stay of its visitors - still less than two days per person. The 28 million visitors who came through the city last year each had maybe two sit-down meals during their brief stay. It is more likely they spent the vast majority of their time on the gambling floor, with a few quick bites in between and perhaps a short snooze before heading back home. Despite the huge investment in restaurants, wine cellars and knowledgeable staff, it is still quite easy to book a table at most of the top restaurants in Macau. Visitors are in a rush to spend maximum time gambling, while wine-loving locals are spoiled with endless free invitations to fine wine dinners.
It is a tricky time now to be running a fine dining restaurant in Macau. Obtaining good staff, especially from overseas, is extremely challenging since the government has strict regulations and quotas for issuing work visas and hiring non-Macanese, especially for gaming. The fast-food end of the business is doing well with gamblers in a rush to be in and out within 30 minutes. However, at the top end, many fine dining restaurants that employ top chefs and sommeliers complain that turnover is low compared with that in other international cities.
What the resorts and the F&B industry are hoping for is that along with being a hot gambling destination, Macau will also attract families and longer-term holiday-makers. Entertainment has improved along with the dining scene, and I now regularly take my family over to Macau for long weekends to enjoy concerts or shows such as the House of Dancing Water and Cirque du Soleil. We try out new restaurants and appreciate that we can get a table nearly anywhere we want. With the ease in which we can zip through immigration, we are in the best position to take advantage of all that Macau now has to offer.