Wednesday, September 3, 2008


I am writing this in Hong Kong, after spending two nights in Macau. I was there last year, and the year before that as well, but each year there are infrastructure developments that boggle the mind. Older friends who have been to Macau when it was yet a Portuguese colony, to attend the Macau Grand Prix, say that it is like comparing Cebu in the sixties to Las Vegas in the next ten or more years.

They just opened the Four Seasons Hotel at the Cotai Strip when I arrived. It sits within the Venetian Hotel and Grand Canal Shoppes complex that opened one year before. Months before, the MGM Casino Hotel was opened, and construction is going full blast on a Galaxy casino complex and a Sheraton Hotel.

The number of tourists who flock to this tiny delta at the mouth of the Pearl River is amazing. Majority are Chinese of course, from neighboring provinces like Guangdong, and of course the Hong Kong Special Autonomous Region. But high rollers who would not bat an eyelash if they lost ten million dollars in a night are flown in from Shanghai, Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo in increasing numbers.

So huge is the income from gaming that the Macanese have now been exempted from paying income taxes. Why squeeze your residents if foreigners are paying enough by gambling too much?

The Cotai development in Taipa island is already an expansion of Macau's gaming centers. Before the Venetian opened up its hotel-casino cum shopping center, everything was crammed into the old town, beside the old Lisboa Hotel of Stanley Ho. Now even Ho has had to build a major addition to his gaudy old casino, which is right across the beautiful Wynn Hotel, another Las Vegas import. From a gambling monopoly elicited from the Portuguese government, Ho has made a lot of money by selling and leasing real estate he wisely bought at the time when very few people went to Macau and China had yet to open its doors to the world.

In 1999, I approached then Philippine Estates Authority chairperson Frisco San Juan, and made a proposal. In the reclaimed portion of Manila Bay beside Roxas Boulevard, the PEA owned some forty or so hectares. Beside it, facing the bay, was the land owned by Henry Sy and facing the boulevard, land owned by George Ty of Metrobank. To the South, there were other lands also privately owned, as per reclamation agreements with the Ramos administration.

The proposal was for us to encourage then President Joseph Estrada to sell or lease the PEA lands to a Las Vegas-based casino enterprise, which shall become the core development of the then sparsely occupied reclamation area. Once the same was done, the lands of Sy and Ty and others will become sites for hotels, other casinos, and shopping centers. I even proposed the building of a monorail to the complex from the international airport. But the catch was that private enterprises, not the government-run Pagcor, should operate the casinos. Pagcor does not have the resources to build big-time, as its charter ensures that its earnings go to government or other earmarked charities, including the President's Social Fund. Pagcor, I maintained, should be a regulatory agency, and must not be into gaming operations itself.

I was then head of the Philippine Tourism Authority, and I realized the great lure for tourism that gaming had. I also took note of the fact that most high rollers in Vegas were actually Asian, and therefore they might be attracted to Vegas-managed casinos in a neighboring country like the Philippines.

But Estrada referred the idea to Pagcor, and it died a natural death there. Now Chairman Ephraim Genuino adopted the idea, ten years late. Within the same decade, Macau has grown and re-grown. In such a short span of time, beginning from the Sands of Las Vegas, Macau has overtaken everyone else as casino capital. In fact, the amount of money that pours into the gaming tables of Macau now outstrips all of Las Vegas gaming revenues. And families now go to Macau for entertainment other than gambling, much like Las Vegas itself.

And there seems to be no end in sight.