MACAU HAS HIT the jackpot. Once beloved for its sleepy character and uniquely dingy gambling halls, the place has shaken off its torpor and is firmly on its way to becoming Asia's answer to Las Vegas. Since the Macau government ended tycoon Stanley Ho's four-decade monopoly on gaming, the hotel and casino sector has taken off. Las Vegas operators keen for a slice of the action are leading the way, with Sheldon Adelson's US$240 million Sands Macau casino and entertainment complex already up and running. Although it has 18 restaurants, bars and entertainment venues, the Sands has only a small all-suite boutique hotel for invited guests. With tourists set to flood in from around Asia, Macau will clearly need thousands of extra rooms to cope with demand. This means a wave of new developments, which are predicted eventually to create more than 20,000 jobs - and the bulk of recruitment may well be from Hong Kong. Wynn Resorts, which created the famed Mirage and Bellagio in Las Vegas, plans to open the US$700 million, 600-room Wynn Macau hotel and casino next year on a 6.5-hectare site opposite the long-established Hotel Lisboa. In addition, the Sands group is building the 1,500-room Macau Venetian Casino Resort, complete with a convention centre and mock Grand Canal and gondolas, similar to the Venetian resort in Las Vegas. Scheduled to open in 2007, it will be the first casino on the so-called 'Las Vegas Strip of Asia', or Cotai Strip, a US$10 billion development of reclaimed land stretching between Taipa and Coloane. This vision of an Asian Las Vegas will include partnership ventures for another 20 casinos and up to 60,000 hotel rooms. Hong Kong property group Far East Consortium International has already signed to build one of the next casino hotels, with at least 2,000 rooms. Groups expected to operate on the Cotai Strip include Four Seasons Hotels, Starwood Hotels & Resorts, Marriott International, Hilton Hotels, Regal Hotels, Dorsett Hotel Group and InterContinental Hotels. Galaxy, a company started by Hong Kong property tycoon Lui Che-woo, which shares a casino licence with Adelson, has already opened the US$60 million Galaxy Waldo Hotel and Casino and plans to open a further 3,000-room property next to the Cotai Strip. Stanley Ho's Sociedade de Jogos de Macau (SJM) is responding to this invasion with a bevy of new casino and theme park projects. These include a six-star complex scheduled to open next year in association with Australian mogul Kerry Packer's Publishing & Broadcasting Limited (PBL), and a US$6.2 billion waterfront entertainment and retail development at Fisherman's Wharf. SJM is also adopting a more American-style approach to its casino operations, which were traditionally basic, smoke-filled and devoid of glamour. SJM's Greek Mythology Casino at the New Century Hotel will feature massive statues of Poseidon, Zeus and other Greek gods, as well as nightly Moulin Rouge-style shows. Taken together, these various projects are forecast to increase the number of jobs in Macau by at least 10 per cent and Hong Kong hotels are already seeing a trickle of staff heading that way. In Hong Kong, resources are already being stretched with the imminent opening of Disneyland plus several five-star hotels including the Four Seasons and the Landmark Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong. If anyone is wondering where the visitors will come from to fill Macau's new hotel rooms and gaming floors, Las Vegas Sands president Bill Weidner simply points to mainland China. Las Vegas Sands spokesman Ron Reese calls it 'the beginning of a new era'. Macau's gaming revenue rose 50 per cent to US$4.12 billion in the first 10 months of last year. Said Gaming Control Board director Manuel Joaquim das Neves: 'If someone had told me that growth would be so fast, I wouldn't have believed them.' At stake Las Vegas magnates lead investments with Sands Macau, Wynn Macau and the 1,500-room Macau Venetian Casino Resort. The reclaimed Cotai Strip, between Taipa and Coloane, may see development worth US$10 billion, with 60,000 new hotel rooms built. International hotel groups tipped to invest include Four Seasons, Starwood, Marriott, Hilton, Regal, Dorsett and InterContinental. Stanley Ho has responded with a six-star hotel and casino complex and a theme park project. Hotel and casino developments are likely to add at least 10 per cent more jobs in Macau, with initial demand for 10,000 hospitality workers. Macau Chief Executive Edmund Ho says there are 'pressing demands on skilled service personnel beyond our capacity'.