Not so far away from the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong, one-time Crown colony of the United Kingdom, there lies another SAR, another former colony – this time of Portugal – that has since been returned to China under the same “one country, two systems” of HK. Macau, while smaller than its fellow SAR on the other side of the Pearl River delta, is just as amazing and well recommended destination for international tourism. Here on a small peninsula is a remarkable blending of Portuguese and Chinese cultures. It’s also an interesting place of contrast between the old and the new, with stately old architectures and monuments in the vein of historical Europe sharing space with skyscrapers and casinos. Despite a recent economic downturn it has rebounded and remains a welcome spot for both vacationers and high-rollers. This is essential Macau.
Its traditional name (“Macau”, “Bay Gate”) was said to be derived from one of the oldest Chinese temples in the peninsula, A-Ma which is dedicated to the Chinese sea goddess Matsu. Macau has figured in Chinese history since the Qin Dynasty of 221-206 BC, but it was only with the arrival of Portuguese traders in the area that the peninsula became truly significant. As it grew as a trading port Macau was even created as a diocese by the Roman Catholic Church, and Dutch colonial interests even attempted to conquer it. Eventually it became a territory administered by Portugal, by virtue of which Macau remained mostly unmolested by Japanese forces in World War II. Still, with Portuguese power steadily waning, an agreement was later reached with the Communist government of China in 1987 to make Macau a special administrative region effective a transfer of sovereignty on December 20, 1999.
Macau is rather easily reached from Hong Kong by an hour-long ferry trip, averaging about HK$164 ($21) one way. On any good day the SAR is abuzz with tour guides leading any number of tourists from pairs to families to massive throngs of sightseers. Especially popular to see when in Macau is its Historic Center, a collection of specific locations that altogether share the distinction of being a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The aforementioned namesake of Macau, A-Ma Temple, is part of this; so is the façade of the long-lost 17th Century Sao Paulo Cathedral. Tourists can choose between delving into the locale’s rich history at the Macau Museum, tracing the beginnings of the Portuguese colony and its relationship with the then-ruling Qing Dynasty. Alternatively they can celebrate the here and now by climbing either the Macau Tower or the Grand Lisboa Palace for spectacular views of the SAR. Or maybe they can instead pay a visit to the numerous dining establishments that have been running for generations, offering Portuguese or Chinese cooking at their most distinctively Macau.
More grown-up – and definitely more affluent – travelers to Macau would know the place for its other face: that of being one of the world’s prominent gambling centers, in fact the only place in China where casino gambling establishments are legal. Matters however came to a bit of uncertainty in 2014 when Chinese President Xi Jinping intensified the central government’s measures to curb graft and corrupt practices, for which the Macau SAR was heavily affected due to its reputation for the go-to center for money laundering of ill-gotten money from the mainland. In response to the sudden drop of casino attendance, a number of those resorts have turned their hand to expanding into more wholesome and general-audience ventures such as fine dining and theme park amusements.
These steps have worked. Not only have the tourists kept on coming – for different reasons – but eventually by August of 2016 revenues from gaming, down for 26 months prior, have begun to recover. As a matter of fact, just this February Macau made $2.88 billion total out of its casinos and other gaming centers. That’s about three times the haul of Las Vegas, Nevada in the same period. Even better, the emergency reinvention undertaken by many establishments during the slum period have since continued to draw in visits, many of them tourist families who have come not to gamble but merely to shop and take in the sights and sounds.
And it looks like that demographic shift won’t be reverting any time soon. By 2018 MGM Cotai will have answered this new influx by opening additional 1,500 rooms for accommodation, along with a spa and theatre for shows, concerts and musicals. At the same time, a new connecting road bridge between Macau and the mainland city of Zhuhai will be opened to traffic before 2017 is out. While there are still concerns over the level of economic stability in gambling Macau, analysts agree that it’s far more secure now than it was before. And for the tourists that continue to pour in, that is most welcome news.
SOURCES: The National (UAE), The Daily Mail (UK)