In most respects, the Chinese coastal city of Macau and the United Kingdom are about as different as two areas of the globe can get.
Yet they share one thing — both are eyeing drastic liberalization of their gambling regulations. And for that reason, the markets are emerging as the latest possible opportunities for Las Vegas’s casino operators.
At the moment, the city of Macau, a city of 430,000 on the southeast shore of mainland China, is the most immediate opportunity. Located less than 40 miles west of Hong Kong, Macau is situated within a relatively short distance of some of Las Vegas’s most lucrative high-roller markets, including China, Taiwan, Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand.
“Anybody’s who is in the business of high-rollers will be looking (at Macau), because it’s so close to the most lucrative group of customers to Las Vegas,” said Jason Ader, gaming analyst with Bear Stearns. “I think everyone would like to figure out a way to be there, given its proximity to China.”
Since 1962, Macau’s gaming industry has been in the hands of one man, Stanley Ho Hung-Sun. Ho controls 10 casinos in Macau, and it’s estimated these casinos gross roughly $2 billion a year.
And over that 40-year period, Macau has grown particularly dependent on gambling. Macau collects a 31.8 percent tax on gaming revenues from Ho’s monopoly, which amounted to $291 million in taxes over the first five months of 2001 — about 60 percent of the taxes collected by the city of 430,000 people.
But change is in the air in Macau, which was turned over from Portugal to the People’s Republic of China in December 1999. Though Macau is now a part of China, it operates as a Special Administrative Region, which gives local authorities considerable autonomy over the city.
Earlier this month, Macau’s Executive Council approved a bill that would end Ho’s monopoly, opening the door for as many as three gaming licensees to operate in the city. Macau’s legislature was set to begin debating the bill today.
“China wasn’t sure they were getting a good count (of gaming revenues), frankly,” said Shannon Bybee, director of UNLV’s International Gaming Institute. “That’s one of the reasons for competition.”
If approved, the three licenses would be awarded by year’s end. Ho is expected to receive one of the licenses, leaving the door open for two new entrants. The new licensees would be selected by their “qualification(s) and financial status,” said a statement issued by the Macau Executive Council.
The possibility of capturing a gaming license in an established Pacific Rim gaming market has caught the interest of some of Las Vegas’s biggest names. Both Las Vegas Sands Inc., parent company of the Venetian, and MGM MIRAGE are currently examining the possibility of establishing casino resorts on the Taiwanese island of Penghu, which is examining legalized gaming.
“Macau is something everyone’s aware of,” said Jim Murren, president and chief financial officer of MGM MIRAGE. “It’s an island right off Hong Kong, with an extraordinarily dense population base. It’s been consistently a very big market, and there are not that many big (gaming) markets in the world.”
Murren said MGM MIRAGE is “monitoring” the situation. But he made it clear MGM MIRAGE isn’t the only Las Vegas company to be doing so.
“Everyone you talk to is looking at Macau,” Murren said. “Guys like Park Place (Entertainment Corp.), ourselves, the Venetian, Mandalay (Resort Group), Sun (International) … everyone is monitoring Macau.” More about Semua Situs Slot Mpo
But Murren shied from expressing outright interest in Macau.
“We don’t know about the tax structure, the regulations, the competitive nature, the term of the license … you can’t say you’re interested in something when you have all those factors to assess,” Murren said. “It’s definitely something we’d want to learn more about.”
Other gaming companies were more reticent about the possibility of heading to the Far East.
“We’re in the fortunate position of having a significant amount of free cash flow, and we look at every exciting new opportunity, but we don’t routinely discuss what may or may not be in negotiation,” said Debbie Munch, spokeswoman for Park Place.
Mandalay and Las Vegas Sands officials couldn’t be reached for comment.
There are risks for U.S. casino operators in Macau, however. One of the biggest could be regulatory — if scandal emerges at an overseas casino owned by a Nevada licensee, that scandal could jeopardize the company’s U.S. licenses.
And Macau’s historically been one of the most corrupt gaming markets in the world, Ader said.
“If the companies are going to look at Macau, they have to be comfortable it’s not going to be anything close to the history of that market, which was a market fraught with corruption,” Ader said.
Though a Nevada licensee doesn’t need prior permission, “we would require the licensee to demonstrate Macau is a suitable place to do business,” said Dennis Neilander, chairman of the Nevada Gaming Control Board. “They wouldn’t want to jeopardize their licenses here.”
Another considerable risk is political, even though Macau’s autonomy has been guaranteed by the Chinese government through 2049.
“Over a period of time, you don’t know what that means for sure,” Bybee said. “It depends on how much independence (Macau has), how much interference there will be from China.”
Corruption and political instability simply aren’t issues halfway around the world in the U.K. And now, Britain is sending clear signals it too is looking at a drastic shift in its casino industry. Gambling has been legal in the U.K. since 1968, but has been severely restricted by the British government.
Last week, a federal review panel suggested drastic changes to Britain’s Gaming Act. The panel suggested lifting bans on serving alcohol to patrons and advertising; removing the 1,000-pound cap on slot machine prizes; eliminating the location restriction on casinos, which confine gambling to 53 designated areas; doing away with the 24-hour “cooling off” period for new casino members and completely scrapping limits on the number of slot machines large casinos may deploy.
“We believe that gambling is an enjoyable and predominantly harmless leisure activity for adults,” said Sir Alan Budd, a former British Treasury adviser who headed the panel.
The British Parliament would have to approve legislation to adopt those recommendations. So far, there hasn’t been an indication that will happen, though government officials have indicated the rules need to be reformed. The possibility of these reforms has all of Britain speculating the European island nation will soon become home to a slew of Las Vegas-style resort casinos.
“If Britain does move forward and legalize Vegas-style gaming it could be an opportunity for U.S. gaming operators to develop casinos, as well as a boon to equipment suppliers such as IGT (International Game Technology),” wrote UBS Warburg gaming analyst Robin Farley in a Monday research note.
The concept of a Las Vegas company entering the British market isn’t new. In the early 1980s, Golden Nugget Inc. (later called Mirage Resorts Inc.) attempted to win a casino license there, but then-Chairman Steve Wynn withdrew the application after officials insisted that majority control of the casino reside with a British company or investor.
Though Europe isn’t as rich a source of high-rollers as the Pacific Rim, it makes sense for U.S. casino operators to examine the possibility of opening British casinos, Ader said — provided that the British gaming tax structure and regulatory structure are similar to the United States.
Murren said the European option is on a “parallel track” to the possibility of an MGM MIRAGE-owned casino on the Pacific Rim.
“I would say, clearly, we’re looking at both the Pacific Rim and Europe … I wouldn’t put anything in the lead at this point,” Murren said. “The bottom line is, every time you look at stuff like that, you have to balance it against the U.S. Nine times out of 10, it’s hard to beat what we do in the U.S.”