he former Portuguese colony's efforts to reinvent itself with a half-size Eiffel Tower replica and Melco-Crown's Hollywood-themed resort Studio City are starting to pay off, according to local government data.
James Packer is scrapping plans for an international gambling empire as Crown looks to offload shares in an increasingly risky Macau to focus on a safer bet at home.
Macau has seen a surge in tourists from beyond China - a sign that growth in the world's biggest gambling hub next year will come from leisure players rather than the high-stakes Chinese gamblers it used to pursue.
Analysts surveyed by Bloomberg see gambling revenue rising 7 per cent in 2017 led by mass market players, after three consecutive years of declines. Visitor numbers from South Korea, Japan, and the US jumped in November, helping offset declining arrivals of mainland Chinese who make up two-thirds of Macau's 2.6 million visitors in the month, according to the city's Statistics and Census Service.
Macau's gaming industry has seen a nascent recovery in the northern hemisphere summer as Las Vegas Sands Corp. and Wynn Resorts opened tourist-friendly resorts after China's crackdown on corruption and illegal outflows scared off VIP players.
Those efforts intensified in October, when Chinese authorities arrested 18 Crown employees for "gambling crimes" to deter its citizens from gambling overseas. The city is at the same time fending off regional challengers such as South Korea and the Philippines.
"There are definitely more reasons to come to Macau now versus two years ago, and that is the key reason why overnight visitation is growing faster than total visitation," said Nomura Holdings analyst Richard Huang. As more casinos open in Macau in the coming years, "we expect that to continue drive growth in the mass gaming segment," he said.
The Macau government is due to announce gross gaming revenue for December as early as January 1. Analysts surveyed by Bloomberg expect full-year gambling receipts of about 222.8 billion patacas ($38.8 billion), a decrease of 3.5 per cent, extending declines of 34 per cent in 2015 and 2.6 per cent in 2014, according to the median of ten estimates.
Visitors who stay at least a night in Macau, typically tourists, rose 10 per cent in November and accounted for 53 per cent of total arrivals, while same-day visitors fell 9.7 per cent, according to government data. Overnighters are also staying longer, at an average of 2.1 days.
"Without a doubt over past several months, Macau has felt busier than it has in a couple years," said Grant Govertsen, an analyst at Union Gaming Group. But while Macau's government is trying to become less reliant on gambling, there's still a long way to go before it becomes like the Las Vegas Strip, where non-gaming revenue makes up 62 per cent, compared with about 6 per cent in the Chinese city, he said.
"Does the fact that Macau has an Eiffel Tower now bring extra people to the market? Yes, but their main activity here will still be gaming," said Govertsen. Las Vegas Sands opened its $US2.9 billion ($4 billion) casino project in September featuring the Parisian landmark, about a year after Melco Crown Entertainment opened its Hollywood-themed Studio City that includes a Batman ride and a Ferris wheel shaped in a figure eight.
MGM China and SJM Holdings are also planning to open additional casino resorts in Macau next year. Macau casino shares have jumped this year in anticipation of the tourist-led recovery, with MGM China surging 52 per cent and Galaxy Entertainment Group advancing 36 per cent.
Still, Galaxy's billionaire chairman Lui Che-Woo said in an interview in September it was too early to say the worst is over for Macau, preferring to wait for more-sustained growth, backed by mainstream gamblers rather than VIPs.
Meanwhile, Melco Crown Chairman Lawrence Ho is setting his sights beyond Macau, as the fight for market share in the former Portuguese enclave heats up. The billionaire is taking greater control of Melco Crown after James Packer's Crown sold down its stake in the Macau casino operator.
"We are in a recovery. That recovery is not going to be the same as the recovery during the global financial crisis," Ho said in an interview last month, referring to Macau. "This time around, it's different. It's going to be more of a natural recovery."
Crown staged a massive retreat from its international operations in early December, exiting Macau and shelving plans to build a casino in Las Vegas, to reduce debt and focus on its casinos in Australia, led by the $2 billion high-stakes Barangaroo resort in Sydney.