few years ago, Macau was a sleepy coastal town. Visitors came for the Portuguese wine, cobblestone streets and musty antique shops - and for the gambling. The city became a special administrative zone when it was returned to China in 1999, making it the only place in China where casinos are legal.
Within a few years, the Beijing-backed Macau government ended local tycoon Stanley Ho’s monopoly on the territory’s gambling industry, issuing licenses to other companies, including Wynn Resorts, MGM Mirage and Australia’s Crown. About 10.5 million Chinese mainland visitors came to Macau in 2005 and nearly 15 million are expected next year, according to the Pacific Asia Travel Association, a trade group.
When the new casinos began opening in 2004, the prevailing logic among casino executives was that the Chinese visitors mostly come to gamble. Some operators are still unsure what entertainment to offer, especially performances that guests would have to pay to see.
"This is a very new market," says a Wynn Macau spokeswoman. "No one really knows what people are looking for here," says Jennifer Welker, the local author of travel guide The New Macau. "They’re still in that testing phase."
There are now more than 25 casinos, and many have a mix of gambling, hotel rooms and restaurants. Wynn casino’s current entertainment options are limited to a five-minute water and light show set to music. At the Crown Macau, there’s a spa and eight restaurants, but there are no live performances. It’s a different story at Grand Lisboa, where there are two shows: a free, daily "Crazy Paris" performance - a can-can-style dance act - and "Tokyo Nights," performed by a troupe of Japanese dancers.
Strict rules against advertising by casinos in mainland China make it difficult to promote events there, and a taxi shortage means travelers arriving on the ferry from Hong Kong often have to wait in long lines.
Still, many big-name acts are choosing to play in Macau rather than Hong Kong. Last October, the National Basketball Association’s Orlando Magic and Cleveland Cavaliers and the China Men’s National Team played at the Venetian Arena, the 15,000-seat stadium at the Venetian resort and casino. The Police performed there in early February, and Celine Dion arrives next month for a one-night-only show as part of her world tour.
This summer, the Venetian plans to bring Cirque du Soleil, the acrobatic show that’s a fixture in Las Vegas, to Macau as a permanent show. Cirque will perform in a 1,800-seat theater that is still under construction.