julia dimon/for metro toronto
At 20 million visitors last year, Macau is proving to be a big-time destination for tourists and gamblers alike. With a gaming revenue bigger than that of Las Vegas, this unassuming, former Portuguese colony has become the gambling capital of the world.
Located an hour southwest of Hong Kong, Macau is an interesting blend of casino culture, colonial-style buildings and old-school China. Like Hong Kong, Macau is designated as a Special Administrative Region, with its own currency and administrative system. It’s a place where you can spend the day sipping espresso in a European piazza, chowing down on traditional dim sum or plunging off the world’s highest bungee drop.
Clearly, gambling isn’t the only thing to do in Macau but it’s certainly one of the main reasons to visit. All the major casinos are here — the Wynn, MGM Grand, Grand Lisboa and Sands. At night, Macau is lit up like a Christmas tree; neon signs with flashing rainbow colours that may induce seizures.
As visitor numbers increase, so does construction. Macau is booming, with dozens of big-name hotel and casino developments on the go. The scene reminds me a bit of Dubai — a city of cranes, construction and financial excess.
One of the most over-the-top projects to hit Macau is The Venetian. Opened just a few months ago, the Vegas-owned hotel is twice the size of its sister property, with some 3,000 suites, 6,000 slot machines and more than 30 restaurants. According to the press kit, The Venetian could power 120,000 American homes. At an equivalent size of 56 American football fields, it’s the world’s second-largest building.
Though I’m not much of a gambler, I decide a trip to Macau wouldn’t be complete without a quick visit to this newest and biggest casino on the block. As I pull up to The Venetian, my jaw drops. The decor is opulent, with crystal chandeliers, marble floors and gold-leaf frescos.
I walk through a corridor of columns before spotting the first gaming room. As slot machines chime, gamblers sit to play baccarat, Fan Tan, Yee Hah Hi (a game popular with the Asian crowd) and Caribbean stud poker. Though there are a handful of foreigners, the majority of patrons are weekend travellers from Hong Kong and mainland China.
On another floor, near an arcade of high-end shops, iconic Venice is recreated. There’s a replica of St. Mark’s Square, accurately recreated in every detail except for the plentiful pigeon poo. Crumbling Italian facades frame the artificial blue sky and indoor water canal. Gondoliers paddle tourists down the man-made stream, serenading them with operatic singing and corny jokes.
For those looking to “double down” and lose money to the house, consider Macau, the up-and-coming gambling Mecca rising in the east.