Top financiers, analysts and property developers gathered in the Park Avenue penthouse of New York's austere Asia Society last Tuesday to talk about slots, poker, roulette - and betting on Macau. Not that Macau has been ignorant of gambling these past three centuries. But the one-time charming, insular casinos are being turned into the next Las Vegas, say industry magnates. And if Macau is going to lose some of its dusty delights for more glitzy entertainment, well, that's the way the roulette ball rolls. With casino revenue of $43.4 billion last year, the city is hard on the heels of Las Vegas to win the title of the world's top-grossing gambling destination. Over the past two years, Las Vegas casino and resort operators have poured billions of dollars into transforming dowdy Macau into Asia's glamour girl. Their goal? To turn the former Portuguese enclave into an Asian Las Vegas, a gamblers' paradise, yes, but also a 'wholesome, family-friendly tourism destination', in the words of Wynn Resorts' president Ronald Kramer. Mr Kramer was among speakers addressing investors and gaming industry analysts at a luncheon and panel discussion entitled, The Big Payoff: Asia's Gamble on Gaming, sponsored by the Asia Society, which usually offers its premises for 16th century Japanese etchings and predictions of Mongolian agricultural futures. This is how the big sell of Macau is happening in the US. Among the sceptics was Rik Kirkland, senior editor at Fortune magazine, who remembers Macau as 'a place where gang wars and public shootings [took] place on a regular basis'. 'Chicago-style slayings?' Mr Kramer said. 'Shady underworld types? You could have said all the same things about Las Vegas 50 years ago. 'Times change. Markets evolve, and what we see is that Macau is going to be the best market for growth for the foreseeable future.' One of the main reasons behind his bullishness about Macau's future as a gambling and tourism hub is its demographics: 'A hundred million people within a three-hour drive of Macau [and] a billion people within a three-hour flight. 'We're talking about a population with a cultural propensity to gamble that's beyond anything that exists any place else in the world. And Macau, this tiny little enclave, is the only legal place to go,' Mr Kramer said. The gaming and financial community expects China's swelling middle class to pour into Macau's casinos and resorts. And the easing of travel restrictions to the special administrative region had been a boon to Macau's economy, said Jan Lochtenberg, managing director of gaming, lodging and leisure for Societe Generale Americas Security. Since 2003, when mainlanders were allowed to cross the border with fewer restraints, tourist numbers have soared. 'From the present level of 18 million visitors a year, that number could easily be 30 million by 2010,' Mr Lochtenberg told his audience. Modernising the infrastructure would add to the attraction for affluent mainlanders. Such moves should not only mean more hotel rooms and amenities, but improved transport facilities, Mr Lochtenberg said. 'Right now, Macau is primarily a day-trip market. But for it to become a tourism destination, bridges, roads and airport facilities will need to be modernised and expanded. That's already starting to happen - a light rail system is coming on stream and the government will be allowing more airlines to serve Macau.' Another measure of the expansion of Macau's gambling market is the rising popularity of slot machines. Although the older casinos had catered largely to high rollers who favour large-stake tables, the newer crop are courting the neglected mass segment with a higher proportion of slot machines. Warren Jowett, Asia Pacific executive general manager at Aristocrat Technologies, an Australian slot machine manufacturer, put the current number of Macau's slot machines at 3,000, but said he expected that figure to grow to between 15,000 and 26,000 in the next three to five years. Over this time, lower-end gamblers are expected to discover the joys of one-armed banditry at venues such as the Sands Macau, which has 519 slot machines to 277 gaming tables. As to why the Las Vegas newcomers had been allowed into Macau in the first place, Mr Kramer credited Macau authorities and the central government. 'They understand that letting us do business in Macau was a step towards the bigger goal of making Macau into a destination for Southeast Asia. 'In the 17 years after the Mirage [Steve Wynn's first big casino] opened in Vegas, revenues went from 70 per cent gaming to where non-gaming revenues exceed gaming. Macau's market is 98 per cent gaming revenues, with an almost US$5 billion a year revenue that's about to become transformed. The Chinese government understood that gaming was just the economic engine.' Macau's success in profiting from gambling has not escaped the attention of its neighbours. Not wanting to be left out of the game, Vietnam, Cambodia, North Korea and even Singapore have or are about to open casinos. So is Macau's position as Asia's gambling capital threatened? 'Not at all,' Mr Jowett said. 'Macau had such a head start over everyone else. It has a long history as a gambling haven and its authorities have always been business and game-friendly. It's the Las Vegas of Asia and nothing will change that.' 'We've considered Singapore,' Mr Kramer said, 'but decided that the biggest opportunities are in Macau. If we're right, and I think we are, Macau's going to be the most exciting growth story in Asia.' With that, ladies and gentlemen, get ready to place your bets.