Indeed, “diversity” has become something of a watchword in a city that many industry insiders and locals see as too casino-dependent. No one expects gambling, which in 2014 generated more than US$40 billion in revenue and accounts for the vast majority of government income, to go away. But casino earnings have been sliding since mid-2014, and officials are increasingly pushing developers to bring in more non-gaming attractions in a bid to broaden Macau’s tourist appeal. Presumably, this will be evident at the resorts opening in 2016 and beyond. Among them are the “seven-star” Louis XIII, the Hollywood Roosevelt, the Parisian (complete with a half-size replica of the Eiffel Tower), and the Lisboa Palace (featuring a Karl Lagerfeld–designed hotel), each promising more elevated levels of grandeur and indulgence. Whether this constitutes diversity, however, is debatable. The most ambitious developments are still largely confined to the Cotai Strip, backed by large corporate interests, of similar size (huge), and targeting a similar variety of traveler (affluent). And the casinos, even if less front-and-center, are still among the main draws.
But beyond the bright lights of Cotai, which stitches together the former islands of Coloane and Taipa, alternative visions for Macau and its tourism industry are emerging. Signs of strain—that something has to change—are readily apparent. They are arguably most visible in the well-preserved but perennially teeming historic core of the Macau peninsula, especially around the skeletal remains of the 16th-century St. Paul’s Church and Senado Square, where police are sometimes obliged to step in to control pedestrian traffic. The constant shortages of taxis and service staff are similarly indicative of the city’s current challenges, as are the no-longer-isolated protests against the government and the casinos themselves.
Before the boom years, Macau was perhaps best known as nearby Hong Kong’s sleepier cousin; a charming relic of cobbled streets and sun-drenched plazas where the afternoons could be whiled away over a few glasses of chilled vinho verde. Happily, in places, that’s exactly what Macau still is. In Taipa Village, an enclave of genuine colonial architecture just across a thoroughfare from the invented European facades of the Venetian, the main street is crammed with neon signs and tour groups queuing up for egg tarts and sticky, candy-like beef jerky. But outside that its alleys are largely still, winding past dusty provision stores and Buddhist shrines and opening onto squares dominated by churches painted in warm pastels with white trim. After sunset, places such as the Old Taipa Tavern or the Casa de Tapas, which boasts a truly lovely roof terrace, have an intimate community feel, with resident expats and a few doughty tourists coming out to swap stories over pints of beer and plates of chorizo.
Another pocket of old Macau exists just a stone’s throw from the Ruins of St. Paul’s—but only after the tour buses have retreated for the day. Seven years ago, David and Jacky Higgins set out to create a venue that encapsulated everything they loved about the city they had been visiting since 1968—the elegance, the easy cosmopolitanism that comes from its polyglot heritage, a degree of Mediterranean languor. The result is MacauSoul, a wine lounge set in a restored shophouse. High ceilings, plush couches, and walls covered in old photos of bygone neighborhoods and personages (to say nothing of the effortless hospitality) make a stop here feel a lot like visiting a friend’s house—providing that friend has impeccable taste in jazz and an encyclopedic Portuguese wine collection. As a microcosm of the city, MacauSoul seems to have succeeded beautifully; on the evening I visit, the crowd includes a handful of Western tourists, a couple from Hong Kong, a table full of locals unwinding after a day at work, and a visiting winemaker from Lisbon.
Yet for all the vibrancy around him, David frets frequently about his adopted home. He’s seen Macau change immeasurably over the past few years and expects more to come. “The Macau lifestyle is being lost very quickly. People fear that it’s going to get worse; that many of the old areas will be demolished and replaced with casinos and shopping malls. The Macau people want their city back.”
“The old Macau is gone,” agrees his friend Tomás Pimenta, a wine importer and prominent member of the city’s remaining Portuguese community. “Every seven days we have a mass for it.”