With casino revenues on the slide in China’s gambling mecca, city officials and developers are looking to win over visitors with non-gaming attractions. Could this be the shape of Macau to come?
By Jonathan Hopfner
Photographs by Callaghan Walsh
What do you get the city that has everything? It’s a question one might well ask of tiny, once sedate Macau, a former Portu-guese colony and current Special Administrative Region of China that over the last decade has witnessed arguably the biggest tourism and gaming-driven building boom since 1960s Las Vegas. On a patch of reclaimed swampland dubbed the Cotai Strip, gargantuan casino developments from the industry’s titans have risen in swift succession: the Venetian, the City of Dreams, the Galaxy, all boasting a cornucopia of diversions spanning water parks, shopping arcades, and concert halls. With so much on offer it’s become something of a race of superlatives jostling for visitors’ attention. The biggest casino in the world, the world’s biggest baccarat prizes, the world’s largest water-based show—all these, and more, in one place.
And the records just keep on coming. So it is that I find myself on a still-muggy fall day perched 130 meters above the streets of Cotai in a steampunk-themed cabin of the Golden Reel, the first Ferris wheel in the world to move in a full figure eight. It is only from this height that one gets a true sense of the Strip’s scale—the monolithic resort complexes that extend in all directions; a traffic-choked border crossing to China proper that is one of Macau’s main tourist lifelines; the vast tracts of land that have yet to be developed but are already spoken for.
Tracing out China’s luckiest number, the Golden Reel is a showpiece of the spanking-new Studio City, whose gala opening in October was attended by the likes of Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio. Touted as “Asia’s Entertainment Capital” by operator Melco Crown Entertainment, the casino-resort’s Art Deco-esque towers contain a host of other movie-themed attractions: a 4,000-square-meter Warner Brothers play center for the kids; a 4D Batman flight simulation over a besieged Gotham City; a magic theater; and a state-of-the-art TV studio.
Back on terra firma, I walk through the Boulevard, a retail zone chockablock with luxury brands and alternately done up to resemble a (very clean) Times Square and Beverly Hills, complete with perky hologram dance performances. Next comes the Egyptian-themed RiverScape with its vast network of outdoor pools, slides, Jacuzzis, artificial beaches, and pirate ships. For those who find wading too much of an effort, there’s Zensa, a coolly minimalist spa, or Cosmos, a food court with a space-station theme. If the future’s not your thing, you can grab a bite in Macau Gourmet Walk, a mock “street” lined with retro-styled shops hawking local favorites. Only please—the dizzying array of distractions seems to be saying—don’t leave.
Studio City president JD Clayton says that the complex has set out to be Macau’s “most diversified entertainment resort,” squarely targeting the “increasingly important” mass-market segment. Middle-class Chinese travelers are increasingly seen as Macau’s bread and butter as China’s economic slowdown and a crackdown on corruption and over-the-top consumption keeps the high rollers at home. Tellingly, the casino at Studio City is one of the few in town without any tables or rooms for VIPs.
Not that Macau is necessarily poised for an age of austerity. Just up the road from Studio City, Starwood Hotels & Resorts recently opened the world’s largest St. Regis, an opulent 400-room property that, among a host of other indulgences, is the city’s first hotel to provide 24-hour butler service for each of its guests. Part of the Sands Cotai Central complex, it’s also just steps away from the world’s largest Conrad and Sheraton hotels, the latter with no less than 4,001 rooms. Convention and event traffic have kept occupancy rates robust, and executives are confident about the St. Regis’s future. “Macau still has more room to grow and much more potential to become a world-class tourism destination,” says general manager Paul Cunningham. “These are exciting times to be in Macau, because we are now witnessing the second phase of the Cotai Strip, which will soon be able to offer a much more diversified experience.”