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Tuesday, 27 November, 2001, 14:59 GMT
Chips go down in Macau
The Lisboa Casino in Macau, owned by Stanley Ho
Stanley Ho's monopoly on Macau's bright lights is about to end
Damian Grammaticas

The tiny territory of Macau, close to Hong Kong in Southern China, has embarked on one of the biggest upheavals in its history, a major transformation of its crucial gambling industry.

Macau's 440,000 inhabitants live off the income from its casinos; the rattling of dice, the clacking of betting chips and the rustle of money echoes 24 hours a day.

And for 40 years all the casinos on the island - which reverted from being a Portuguese colony to Chinese control in 1999 - have been controlled by just one company headed by the flamboyant tycoon Stanley Ho.

His million-visitor-a-month business provides two thirds of Macau's tax revenues, funds free education, healthcare and social security - and has made him fabulously wealthy.

Shady dealings

But with it has come a seedy reputation, as casinos sit cheek by jowl with massage parlours and saunas and foreign prostitutes walk the streets.

Not to mention the persistent allegations that Chinese organised crime syndicates are intimately involved in Macau's nightlife - as they are in Chinese communities across Asia.

This image has persuaded the island's chief executive, Edmund Ho, to take away the monopoly once and for all.

"The liberalisation of the gaming sector mainly is to bring in the type of competition that we would like," he told the BBC.

"We believe that liberalising, putting three licences instead of one big monopoly, will enable Macau to transform into something that we would like it to be - namely a gaming, tourism, culture and convention centre."

Getting on

In theory, the loss of the monopoly should not bother Stanley Ho too much.

Now an 80-year-old billionaire with 17 children by four wives, legend has it he arrived in Macau with one dollar in his pocket aged 19.

Now, in the latest symbol of his opulence, he is constructing the tenth tallest building in the world in Macau, an enormous spike of a tower for communications and tourists to enjoy the view.

From the 300m spike Stanley Ho's influence can be seen everywhere, from office blocks to ports and the airline, as well as the world's biggest fleet of high speed ferries bringing in cash-laden gamblers from Hong Kong.

According to Harald Bruning, a local writer and commentator, Stanley Ho is now simply much too big.

"His company has grown into a behemoth," he said. "In a way the company is bigger than the government, financially."

Interest from overseas

The new licences have attracted the attention of casino operators from Las Vegas and Sun City in South Africa, to name but two.

Macau is the only place in China where casinos are allowed and they are eyeing the increasingly wealthy Chinese market.

Locals involved in the industry - albeit on a lesser level than Stanley Ho's - hope the new entrants will make Macau less like Dodge City and more like Las Vegas or Monte Carlo.

For gambling tour operator David Chow, the question is how to bring in a new market and new revenue for Macau, and make it a family attraction instead of just a gambling destination.

"We are not asking people to get greedy," he says.

"We are asking people to come and enjoy and relax. We have to make Macau a destination.

Even so, this won't be the end of Stanley Ho. When his monopoly runs out may no longer be the only operator - but most people expect he'll still be the biggest player in town.

The BBC's Damian Grammaticas
"Its name means City of God, but this former Portuguese territory is a gaudy shrine to baser instincts"
See also:

24 Sep 01 | Asia-Pacific
Surprise gains for Macau democrats
28 May 01 | Asia-Pacific
Chinese official executed for gambling
05 Mar 01 | Asia-Pacific
Kidnap rescue drama in Macau
20 Dec 00 | Asia-Pacific
China warns Macau over dissidents
18 Jul 00 | Asia-Pacific
Macau to widen casino trade
20 Jun 00 | Asia-Pacific
Chinese crackdown on Euro 2000 gambling
17 Feb 00 | Asia-Pacific
Gangland violence resumes in Macau
19 Dec 99 | Asia-Pacific
In pictures: Macau returns to China
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