Great things are happening to Macau and the tiny 23.8 sq. km. former Portuguese colony of some 4,40,000 people -- which reverted to China in December 1999 -- is on a roll.
In the third week of November, over 7,00,000 visitors descended on the territory to cheer on the racers at Macau's famous annual motorcycle and Formula 3 car grand prix. This year, tourist arrivals in the territory might cross 15 million.
The skies are open, the gaming business is no longer a monopoly, and around the world from Hong Kong to Melbourne to Las Vegas, investors are grinning broadly.
At the time of the hand-over, Macau had 10 casinos over which the Hong Kong tycoon, Stanley Ho, had a monopoly. That monopoly was dismantled after 2002 and the number of casinos has gone up to 15.
The way things are, there will be more than 20 by 2007. The reason? There's no other place in Asia where gaming facilities are so developed and no other place in greater China where gambling is legally allowed.
And people love it. The Chinese from the mainland certainly do, who now have greater freedom to travel. In the first seven months of 2004, over 8.3 million mainland Chinese flocked to Macau to gamble and have fun. Soon, the number might exceed mainland arrivals in Hong Kong.
Last May, Las Vegas Sands opened Asia's first Vegas-style casino, Sands Macau, with profits already signifying a 100 per cent return on investments.
July saw the arrival of Galaxy Casino, promoted by a local Hong Kong group with some Sands association. Last month, Kerry Packer, the richest Australian, joined hands with Stanley Ho for a hotel-and-casino complex that is to open in 2007.
Come 2006, Wynn, a Vegas bigwig, will have its much touted $704 million hotel-and-casino complex up and running. And on the cards is the proposal for a massive Vegas-style casino and entertainment area containing 25 hotels offering 60,000 rooms.
But Macau is trying to become much more than the Vegas of Asia. With over 200 entertainment and recreational facilities and over 100 hotels, its declared goal is to develop as a complete leisure destination, dedicated to the fun side of life. Its definition of fun includes sports and family fun, too.
This November, the car and motorcycle grand prix season became a month-long carnival, including an Asian Karting Open championship. International golf, dragon boat racing, marathon, and triathlon events are now regular annual events.
Next October, the Fourth East Asian Games will convene in Macau and the government is in a massive drive to build new world-class sports facilities and upgrade existing ones.
These include dedicated facilities for swimming and water sports, and the $640-million Macau East Asian Games Dome, which will have two pavilions fully equipped for different indoor and exhibition events.
Sports, family fun, and gambling make a formidable combination and fun tourism couldn't expect anything better. But this alone wouldn't have made the difference for Macau if visitors didn't have easy access to it. Connectivity is the key to successful tourism and Macau is superbly connected.
Its close to Hong Kong and there are over 150 fast ferry rides back and forth daily between the two places. One can catch a Macau ferry from the Hong Kong International Airport itself or from Tsim Sha Tsui and Central, making it like hopping on and off a bus.
There's a helicopter service, too, that departs every 30 minutes. And across the land border with the mainland, coach companies offer direct bus services to and from all the major cities in Guangdong province.
All in all a well-meshed network. A foreign tourist flies into Hong Kong, does all the shopping, takes the ferry or the helicopter to Macau to enjoy the fun, and goes on to China to savour its tradition and modernity. Or she can do the same trip in reverse with the same seamless convenience, for the same satisfaction.
Or she can fly directly into Macau's fully-functional, 24-hour international airport. Since the airport opened in November 1995, the former Portuguese enclave has negotiated 41 air agreements with foreign countries. There are daily flights from Taipei, Hong Kong, and cities on the Chinese mainland, and regular ones from Singapore, Bangkok, Seoul, Manila, Pyongyang, Anchorage and Los Angeles. From London and other European cities, special discount flights are available.
This month, Air Asia, the low-fare airline that operates from Malaysia and Thailand, is due to begin discount flights between Bangkok and Macau while Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Atlantic, wants to set up a no-frills airline based in Macau and operating into China.
Macau has signed a liberalised air-services agreement with China, opening the door wide for Macau-based and China-focused activities.If Branson comes, will others be far behind?