Despite invasion by biggest Las Vegas casino firms

Tycoon Stanley Ho opens new casino in Macau

Reading time 1:50 min

Many of the punters who crowded into the Grand Lisboa - shaped like a huge lotus flower covered in blinking lights - were big-betting mainland Chinese who helped push Macau past the Las Vegas Strip last year as the world’s gaming center.

The five-floor casino is owned by Hong Kong billionaire Stanley Ho, who held a monopoly on gaming in Macau for four decades until 2002. The former Portuguese enclave - two islands and a peninsula off China’s southeastern coast - is the only place in China where casinos are legal.

In the past four years, some of the biggest names from Las Vegas - Las Vegas Sands Corp.’s Sheldon Adelson, Wynn Resorts Ltd.’s Stephen Wynn and MGM Mirage - have been aggressively building casinos, luxury hotels and mega resorts in Macau.

Before he opened the us$ 384 million Grand Lisboa on Sunday, Ho acknowledged that his market share slipped to 63 percent last year, and analysts widely agree that it will erode further. But Ho, who has 17 casinos in Macau, said his new flagship Grand Lisboa would compete well with the Las Vegas-style casinos because of his long experience in the market.

"We are the leaders, not the followers," he said. "We know the city well." Ho is battling a common perception that his casinos are stodgy, smoky and plagued with surly service.

His new five-floor casino was decorated with plush red carpet and silver light fixtures with strands of crystal beads. The gaming floors have 240 tables and 484 slot machines.

The 52-story building - with a 430-room hotel that opens later this year - has a round base that looks like a giant Faberge egg covered in lights the flash red, green and gold. The design of its tower was inspired by the long plumes of a Brazilian showgirl’s headdress. The lobby is decorated with 580,000 Swarovski crystals, gold plated leaves and crystal balls.

While the Grand Lisboa appeals to the gamblers, the Las Vegas tycoons like Adelson want to attract a new crowd to Macau. They hope to lure conventioneers, shoppers and families who plan to spend about three days here. Later this year, Adelson plans to open his 3,000-suite Venetian Macao, billed as the largest hotel-casino in the world. The complex will include a massive convention hall and mall, built on reclaimed land between two islands called the Cotai Strip.

No matter how hot the competition gets, Ho will probably continue to turn a decent profit, said Rob Hart of Morgan Stanley in Hong Kong. He noted that Ho is still the largest owner of land in Macau. "So while he might lose some gaming revenue," Hart said, "the rest of his land bank portfolio is worth a huge amount. The land costs are going up in Macau, so he’s worth more and more."

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