Initial word out of the Chinese gambling enclave of Macau was that tourists flooded into the city during the National Day Golden Week holiday, a sign the new casino focus on mass-market entertainment was working.
The Macau Government Tourist Office estimated over 1 million tourists arrived on the peninsula between Oct. 1 and Oct. 7, the weeklong national observance that was launched in 1999 to boost tourism, spur the national economy, and make visiting relatives a priority. It was an 8% increase from last year, and with as many as 970,000 people arriving from the mainland, a near-7% increase that accounted for 84% of total visitors, it signaled a welcome rebound for the gambling mecca.
After all, gaming revenues in Macau had been on a better-than-two-year slide after a corruption crackdown by Beijing caused VIP gamblers to lie low in the enclave -- the only place in China where it's legal to gamble -- preferring instead to seek out other locales to place their bets.
But the opening of Wynn Resorts' (NASDAQ:WYNN) new Palace casino in late August seemed to turn the tide. Gaming revenues, which had been heading south all month long, suddenly reversed course and ended 1.1% higher, marking the first month in 26 months that Macau recorded growth in year-over-year gaming revenues.
That was followed by a 7% jump in September after Las Vegas Sands (NYSE:LVS) opened its new Parisian resort in the middle of the month.
Both the Palace and the Parisian -- as well as MGM Resorts' (NYSE:MGM) new MGM Cotai, scheduled to open in the second quarter of 2017 -- are a different kind of casino resort than the two dozen or so existing venues.
Entertainment for the masses
The old gambling halls existed to cater to high rollers, primarily with high-stakes table games like baccarat that VIP gamblers preferred. But concurrent with the corruption crackdown, Macau was also ordered to open up the city to a more mass-market audience and feature forms of entertainment that didn't necessarily involve gambling. Although, casinos such as Melco Crown Entertainment's (NASDAQ:MLCO) Studio City initially offered only mass-audience table games along with a theme-park-like atmosphere featuring roller coasters, a figure-eight Ferris wheel, and other entertainment venues.
While the Palace didn't include such gaudy entertainment, gearing its gambling alternative instead to luxury retail shops, a "dancing water" feature in front of the resort, and a gondola ride that provides views of the city and the Performance Lake, Sands' Parisian features a scaled-down version of the Eiffel Tower that also provides a panoramic view of the Cotai district.
On the surface, the change in direction for Macau seems justified: Two straight months of higher gaming revenues, and now the successful Golden Week kickoff to October, may be indicating that, with the newly built venues, the crowds really will come.
However, the jury is still out on whether this is a real trend or just a temporary bounce. The higher revenues seen in August and September could have been just one-off events as VIP gamblers returned to see what Wynn and Las Vegas Sands built with all the hype that surrounded the construction. More ominous is the Macau tourism board's revising of its initial estimates downward.
Rather than the 1.15 million tourists it originally said came to Macau, the tourism board decreased the number by a third and said only 770,000 tourists actually showed up in the first week of October, with 720,000, or 25% fewer than the original figure, coming from the mainland.
However, to confuse things, the Macau board included nonresident workers and students in the first data set, but excluded them in the second one, which it says better reflects the peninsula's visitor-arrival situation.
Under the revised numbers, the tourism officials said overall growth was up 19% year over year, with mainland tourist growth 17% higher. Yet there doesn't seem to be a similar breakdown of visitor statistics for the past two annual Golden Week celebrations, which raises the question of why they found it necessary to dice the numbers a little more finely this time.
Regardless, on all accounts the numbers were higher, overriding the worries ahead of the celebrations that there might not be any increase at all. So although there might not be a million reasons to celebrate, Macau's casino operators still have 770,000 of them.