If you still think Las Vegas is the world’s #1 destination for casinos, gambling, and excess, it’s time to wake up and smell the Pasteis de Nata. The former Portuguese colony of Macau is now the richest gaming market on the planet. In 2019, gaming revenue totalled $36.45 billion, compared to Las Vegas with little more than $12 billion.
Macau is an anomaly; a special administrative region and the only place in China where gambling is allowed. It’s just as well: the income gaming generates represents half the tiny country’s economy.
Across Asia, more casino resorts are under construction. In Japan, for the first time, the government has given the green light to three luxury casino resorts; hoping to make up for revenues lost through the decline of Pachinko.
Singapore, the Philippines, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Malaysia have all opened up huge casino resorts in the last decade; aiming to catch a share of the gambling revenue generated by China’s nouveau riche and middle-class tourists.
A Gambling Ethos
The Chinese are renowned for their love of gambling. Pai gow, fan tan, and mah jong can all be found in Asian casinos and gambling is a socially accepted practice at home; bringing families together for excitement and interaction. In Las Vegas, Chinese workers, building the Hoover Dam, were instrumental to the growth of Sin City.
Today, Baccarat is the game of choice in Macau. More than 80 per cent of all casino revenue is generated by this classic European game. It’s a fast-paced, simple, game that relies purely on luck. Also known as punto banco, it’s incredibly popular with Chinese high rollers who bet nerve-jangling sums on the game.
Baccarat suits the Chinese player. There is no hitting or standing. Players choose a side and the dealer draws the cards. Closest to nine wins. There is a strong belief in superstition in China. If luck is flowing into the Baccarat shoe, players tend to stay at the table.
The popularity of Baccarat is matched only by the indifference shown by Chinese gamblers to the three most popular table games in the US: Blackjack, Craps, and Roulette. All three of these iconic Las Vegas games barely register in the Macau accounts. In the US, slots are the main revenue driver, worth 80 per cent. In Asia, although still popular, slots account for less than 10 per cent of total business.
Macau and Las Vegas have roughly the same number of hotels. Sin City has more casinos. Table minimums in Macau are much higher than Las Vegas, with an average of $36 compared to $3.
Superstition is such an important factor for Asian players that every casino will do what it can to avoid any inauspicious décor, design, or symbolism. Feng Shui is in full effect. Red is a dominant colour, butterflies are everywhere, and in most hotels, floor numbers 40 – 49 are missing.
The number 4 is anathema because the word is similar to the Cantonese translation of ‘die’. Conversely, 3, 6, and 9 are good – especially when combined with an 8. In fact: anything to do with the number 8 is considered lucky. Luck and superstition are so important to gamblers in Macau that specialist consultants are on hand to advice and guide hotel designers.
One of the key differences between the casino experience in Macau and Las Vegas is attitude. The Chinese generally take their gambling very seriously; visiting Macau specifically to gamble. In Las Vegas, people come to have fun and a trip to the casino is just part of the whole package.
Macau is also a costly destination. In Las Vegas, you can get cheap food deals and free drinks. In Macau, alcohol is not an option for many gamblers and the cheap food options are harder to find.
Both Las Vegas and Macau are cities dedicated to entertainment, excess, and fun. Some would argue they are decadent but, in a world full of its own problems, it’s comforting to see these insanely over-the-top temples of hope, dedicated to the pursuit of simple dreams.