Features

Boomtown Macau

8 Apr 2024 by BusinessTraveller
Grand Lisboa Casino, Macau (Credit Kindamorphic/istock)

No longer the poor cousin of Hong Kong, the former Portuguese colony is bigger, brighter and brasher than ever. Don’t bet against it.

Macau was among the first European settlements in Asia. Established by the Portuguese in 1557, it predated the founding of its bigger neighbour Hong Kong by nearly 300 years. For most of its life it was a sleepy poor relation of Hong Kong, often described as a backwater, yet ideally placed as a staging post for goods coming in and out of Canton (Guangzhou).

More recently, it was chiefly known for its Macanese and Portuguese food, Vinho Verde wine, cheap hotels, seedy casinos and slightly grubby nightlife. Macau came under Chinese control in 1999, two years after Hong Kong’s handover. For a while, much remained the same, but all that changed when the casino monopoly was broken in 2002 with the granting of licences to Sands China, Galaxy Entertainment Group, Wynn Macau, MGM China, Melco Resorts & Entertainment and SJM Holdings (majority owned by the late Stanley Ho and his family, who were the sole licensees before this date).

Sands China in particular went ahead with huge expansion plans in the form of the Cotai Strip, a piece of reclaimed land linking the former islands of Taipa and Coloane. It owns four casino-resorts on the strip and one on the peninsula. But it’s not a Sands-only show. Also on the strip are huge complexes such as Galaxy Macau, home to no fewer than eight hotels, while Melco owns Studio City (2,500 rooms and suites across four hotels) and the City of Dreams, the latter including the mind-bending hotel building, Morpheus. Not to be outdone, MGM Cotai is in the form of nine jewel-like boxes reminiscent of a child’s building blocks. If you want to see what happens when unlimited cash meets sky’s-the-limit architectural vision – and a fair dash of “mine’s bigger than yours” bravado – head to Macau. In all, the Cotai Strip has some 25,000 hotel rooms, more than half of the city’s total of 47,000.

But it is not all glitz and neon. There are plenty of older, classic hotels, such as the Pousada de Sao Tiago on the Macau Peninsula, which is all polished floors and blue-and-white tiles. Or there’s the Pousada de Coloane, opened in the 1970s and most definitely away from it all.

Galaxy Macau, Credit Nattee Chalermtiragool/Shutterstock

Get connected

In 2019, the Chinese government announced plans for the Greater Bay Area (GBA) – a zone of economic cooperation covering several cities in southern China, including Macau, Hong Kong, Zhuhai (over the border from Macau), Shenzhen and Guangzhou. In all, some 86 million people live in the GBA.

All that economic cooperation requires physical connectivity. Macau International Airport, which saw nearly 10 million passengers in 2019 before the pandemic struck, is a popular hub for those travelling to and from destinations such as Taiwan, cities in mainland China and various places in Southeast Asia. Another way of getting to Macau is by Jetfoil from Hong Kong, a one-hour journey from Central on Hong Kong Island, or from Hong Kong International Airport. Since the pandemic, there have been fewer boats; one reason is that an increasing number of people from the mainland are choosing to cross the border at Zhuhai.

Another is the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge, at 55km, the longest sea crossing in the world. It starts at Hong Kong’s airport and is currently used mainly by tour buses; traffic is expected to increase as the movement of people and goods across the GBA grows.

There have been further transportation improvements. Macau now has its own LRT (Light Rapid Transit), opened in 2019 on Taipa. At the end of 2023, it was connected to Barra in Peninsula Macau. Add this to inexpensive taxis and cheap bus services, and it’s very easy to get around.

The 55km Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge, Credit GuangyongLiu/iStock

Playing the game

Of course, gambling (casino operators prefer the word “gaming”) is Macau’s raison d’être. In 2019, its revenue was six times that of Las Vegas. Its position on the coast of China, a country with no casinos but with a population renowned for its love of rolling the dice, makes it a magnet for many from that country (Macau’s status as a Special Administrative Region of China gives it special dispensation).

Some 70 per cent of visitors to Macau are from mainland China and the majority of the rest are from Hong Kong. Many, if not all, come chiefly for the gambling. In 2022, the Chinese government renewed the gaming licences, but there were conditions. Competition from companies elsewhere, such as Malaysia’s Genting Group, poses a threat to Macau’s market dominance. And an over-reliance on gambling is a risky strategy.

One condition of renewing the licences was that the city’s integrated resorts should offer a broader range of attractions, such as family entertainment, dining, shopping, facilities for putting on concerts and sporting events, and a renewed focus on the Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions sector, with the intention of making it a MICE hub within the GBA.

Macau is ideally positioned to take advantage of this business – a new take on capitalising upon the trade with Guangzhou. In 2023, more than 1,100 MICE events were held in Macau, and more than 1.4 million MICE participants came to the city in 2022. Big-hitters are The Galaxy Arena with 16,000 seats and the Cotai Arena with 13,500, while the Fisherman’s Wharf Convention and Exhibition Centre has more than 5,200 sqm of space.

The ruins of Saint Paul’s Church, Credit Ershov_Maks/Istock

Bright sights

Aside from the glitz and razzmatazz of the casino resorts, Macau has a surprisingly diverse range of attractions, plus plenty of great food. The best place to begin is the historic heart of the city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, on the Macau Peninsula. Here you will find the Ruins of St Paul’s, built by Jesuits in the early 17th century. Only the facade remains intact, but it is elaborately and beautifully carved.

Next to St Paul’s is the Monte Fort, built around the same time as the church to protect the Jesuits and their dwellings from pirates, though it became increasingly fortified as time went on. Inside is the Macau Museum. From St Paul’s, visitors can head to the attractive Senado Square via Rua do Monte, though it’s hard to move for the countless sellers of sweet almond biscuits, peanut candies and beef jerky, all local specialities. Clube Militar de Macau is not far away, on the Avenida da Praia Grande. Head to this striking red colonial building for Portuguese classics such as bacalhau (salted cod), grilled sardines, and lamb in a rich sauce with potatoes and fried garlic. Macau was designated by UNESCO as a Creative City of Gastronomy in 2018 in recognition of its distinctive fare, which, as one would expect, is a wonderful blend of Portuguese and Cantonese food, though pure forms of each are also plentiful.

In addition to gambling, the city is famous for its Grand Prix, a street race that takes place every November. There are races for Formula 3 cars as well as motorbikes and touring cars. The Grand Prix Museum is a must for petrolheads and has realistic simulators. Those who are more interested in seaborne transport should navigate their way to the excellent Maritime Museum, near the tip of the peninsula. It charts the seafaring history of the former colony and the way this has been so intrinsic to its identity.

Those in need of an adrenaline fix should head to the 338-metre Macau Tower for a 233-metre bungee jump, or a tethered walk around the ledge at the top of the structure. There are restaurants within the tower with fabulous views, and this being Macau, a conference centre below. It’s not all tall structures and crowded streets however. Taipa Village, to the north of the Cotai Strip, has brightly painted colonial buildings and some old-school restaurants.

O Santos is a notable Portuguese one. To the south of the strip is Coloane, which the authorities have striven to preserve as a green retreat. There are some lovely beaches here, such as Hác Sá, and some pleasant but not too strenuous hiking trails. At the back of Hác Sá beach is Macau stalwart Fernando’s, established in the 1980s and still going strong. No fine dining here, but large tables for groups seeking great Portuguese food and Vinho Verde. After all this activity, visitors might wish to return to the hotel. However, there’s plenty of nightlife for those that way inclined. Sky 21 in AIA Tower (on the peninsula) offers fantastic views and late-night dancing. More fun is to be had at the countless resorts, most of which have bars that go well into the night. That’s when Macau really comes alive.

Macau grand prix (Credit prix_macaonews.org)

NEW HOTELS

Andaz Macau

In September last year, Hyatt Hotels opened Andaz Macau in partnership with Galaxy Macau. It is the brand’s first hotel in the city and its largest worldwide, with 700 guest rooms, including suites as large as 68 sqm. Its signature restaurant, Andaz Kitchen, offers Portuguese and Macanese favourites in an interior inspired by traditional shophouses. The hotel is close to the Galaxy Arena. galaxymacau.com

W Macau – Studio City

Also on Cotai, the W Macau – Studio City is part of the Marriott Bonvoy collection. It has 557 rooms, some of which are Wonderful (that’s the name, not an opinion). The hotel and its signature Cantonese restaurant Diva draw a trendy crowd, while the building has views of Studio City’s Golden Reel, a figure-of-eight double-Ferris wheel affair with the cabs on the inside, 130 metres up. This is Macau, after all. marriott.com

Yoho Treasure Island Resorts World Hotel

This property on the Macau Peninsula opened in January and is split into two hotels – Yoho Treasure Island and Yoho Resorts World – with a total of 600 rooms and suites, some with an outdoor garden onsen, plus views of the city, the Nam Van Lake and Macau Tower. treasureislandresortsworld.com

Words: Nick Goodyer

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