Macau’s Rise to the Top

Who would ever have thought that China (a place where gambling is all but illegal) would one day produce the biggest casino destination on Earth? But that is indeed what has happened.

Each year, over 30 million visitors flock to the Chinese special administrative region (SAR) of Macau to experience what has become known as Asia’s Vegas. In fact, as of 2006, Macau became the top-grossing casino location in the world. With a gross gaming revenue (GGR) of US$6.95 billion, Macau then surpassed even Last Vegas, and has not been overtaken again since.

Trumping the City of Sin is no mean feat so the story of Macau’s rise and rise is a fascinating one, certainly worth retelling.

Origins of Gambling in Macau

The history of Macau is rich and varied as it has been populated for roughly 7000 years and has seen power change hands repeatedly during that time. Although people from mainland China had been living there for centuries before, Macau was only officially claimed by any nation in the mid 16th Century and it wasn’t by the Chinese. Portuguese explorers arrived on the peninsula in 1557 and soon claimed it as their own. Over the ensuing centuries, a series of power struggles and diplomatic agreements resulted in several shifts in governance.

Although Macau officially became an SAR of China in 1999, its rise to gambling eminence has decidedly Portuguese origins. Gambling was officially legalized in Macau way back in 1947, setting it fairly ahead of the rest of the world in this regard. Today, the primary gambling regions in Macau are the city of Macau and the Cotai Strip – a man-made bridge spanning the waterway between Taipa and Coloane.

The Ho Monopoly

In 1962, the former government made the unusual decision to award a complete gambling monopoly to a single entity. Through his company, Sociedade de Turismo e Diversões de Macau (STDM), Japanese entrepreneur and casino magnate, Stanley Ho was granted complete control of the Macau gambling industry. In that same year, STDM opened its first casino, the Casino Estoril, with the Lisboa Hotel and Casino Lisboa entering full operations in 1970.

More than 10 types of casino games (including Baccarat, Blackjack, and slots, among others) as well as bingo, and greyhound racing and horse racing were introduced under the STDM monopoly.

International Gambling Giants

After over four decades of total dominance, the Ho “Dynasty” finally dissolved in 2001, shortly after the Portuguese officially handed over Macau to the Chinese government in 1999. When STDM’s exclusive deal expired in 2001, the Chinese authorities chose not to renew it and began awarding new casino licences to various operators the following year.

In May 2004, the West arrived in Macau once more, this time setting up residence in what would become some of the world’s most famous casinos. This began with the US-owned Sands Macau and was followed by other big names like the MGM and the Wynn Macau. In August 2007, the world’s largest hotel and casino, the Venetian Macau (sister site to the Venetian Las Vegas), officially opened its doors.

Meanwhile, local operators certainly were not undone by the dissolution of their initial monopoly. The former STDM  and Galaxy are two local operators that remain major players in the Macau gambling industry. Galaxy owns the iconic StarWorld hotel and casino, whilst SJM owns numerous casinos, including the famous Grand Lisboa and the Hotel Lisboa Casino.

Macau is now home to 38 casinos in Macau. Twenty-three of these are located on the Macao Peninsula and 15 are found on Taipa Island. In terms of numbers, local operators continue to dominate the market: SJM leads the way with 20 casinos, while Galaxy has six; the Venetian has five; Melco Crown has four; Wynn has two, and MGM has one.