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Friday, 22 February, 2002, 10:34 GMT
Macau casinos hit the big time
The aftermath of a car bombing in Macau
One good reason for investors to be careful in Macau
The Chinese enclave of Macau is often referred to as the Las Vegas of Asia.

But while the tiny territory attracts millions of gambling visitors every year, its Vegas-style aspirations have been reined in by its shabby casinos, rampant prostitution and lurid reputation for criminality.

Map of China, showing Macau
Now, three years after former colonial power Portugal returned Macau to Chinese rule, the enclave's government has opened up its gambling industry, awarding three new licences to casino operators in return for the promise of investment.

Two of the three new licences have gone to seasoned veterans of the Las Vegas gaming market, and big changes are promised.

High rollers

Gambling certainly is big business in Asia.

The total market is estimated as worth an annual $8bn, a figure that is predicted to treble within a decade.

Stanley Ho
Mr Ho has had to let go of his monopoly
Of that, at least one-quarter goes to Macau, whose 10 casinos are the main draw for the territory's 10 million or so annual visitors.

Officially at least, gambling is banned in China and Taiwan, so Macau's protected franchise ensures it a steady stream of visitors from around the region.

For the past 40 years, the territory's entire gaming industry has been in the hands of Stanley Ho, a Hong Kong tycoon.

But Macau's new government saw Mr Ho's monopoly as a major block to the development of tourism, and the cause for the relative decrepitude of the territory's facilities.

Magnates muscle in

As a condition of his compliance with the deregulation, Mr Ho has been granted one of the three licences.

Among the 20 applicants for the other two licences, the winning bids came from Steve Wynn and Sheldon Adelson, two pillars of the Las Vegas community.

Steve Wynn
Mr Wynn offers some Las Vegas glamour...
Mr Wynn was behind the Golden Nugget, arguably Las Vegas's most famous casino, and built up the empire that eventually became MGM Mirage.

Among other things, Mr Adelson built Las Vegas's most lavish casino, the $1.2bn Venice, which attempts nothing less than a faithful recreation of the Italian city in the middle of the Nevada desert.

Mr Wynn, and a representative of Mr Adelson's, have spent this week in Macau to scout out opportunities.

Venice on the South China Sea

Their plans are still somewhat vague; Mr Wynn has said he will invest $500m in Macau, but has not elaborated further.

Mr Adelson, however, is to carry on his Venetian obsession in Macau: his planned 15,000-square-metre "Great Casino Hall" will feature an indoor recreation of the Grand Canal, complete with gondoliers.

Sheldon Adelson
... but Mr Adelson prefers Venice
According to the Macau government, the Adelson project will cost as much as $1.1bn.

Such Las Vegas-style high-rolling should play well in Macau, where gambling has so far tended to be of the no-frills variety.

Indeed, the biggest sensation until now has been Mr Ho's plan to build a small artificial volcano attraction next to the ferry terminal.

More bangs for their bucks

But if Mr Wynn and Mr Adelson thought that making money was going to be easy, they will have had a shock on Thursday.

As the investors were being shown around town, a car bomb exploded, tearing up a Mercedes Benz limousine.

A casino in Macau
Not all Macau casinos are this glitzy
The explosion, which injured a bystander, undermines the boast that the new administration has cleared up the vicious gang warfare that characterised Macau in the last years of Portuguese rule.

In its struggle to maintain law and order, the Chinese administration is being accused by some of authoritarianism.

A group of the territory's police are currently fending off complaints that they roughed up some visiting Hong Kong journalists, covering the visit of Beijing bigwig, Chinese Premier Li Peng.

The Macau Security Forces admitted officers had been "overzealous".

See also:

27 Nov 01 | Business
Chips go down in Macau
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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