Every time I go to Macau, there’s something there that amazes me and it ends up skewing my view of Asian gaming once again.
Last month, I traveled to the Chinese SAR for G2E Asia, one of the most exciting trade shows in the casino industry. I meet many interesting people for the first time and renew acquaintances with some of the “expats” who are running the hotels in Macau.
On this trip, the atmosphere was totally different from last year’s G2E Asia, when operators were concerned about a months-long downturn that had impacted revenues through the first half of 2009. Just as the show wrapped up last year, however, things began to turn around, and the town is on a winning streak not seen since the early days of Atlantic City.
Since last June, monthly revenue increases have averaged well over 50 percent, and for May and June of this year, revenues have nearly doubled over 2009. And as China begins to consider cutting loose the reminibi (the Chinese monetary unit) from its traditional ties to the U.S. dollar, the attraction (and profitability) of the Macau casinos could increase even more. So it’s no wonder that the U.S. operators there—Las Vegas Sands, MGM Resorts and Wynn Resorts—are very happy to have the coveted licenses. Harrah’s Entertainment, meanwhile, is like a kid at the candy store window, looking in at what could have been.
But there were some disturbing elements of my trip this time. Each time I’m there, I’m reminded of the proliferation of prostitution. And since prostitution is legal in Macau (making your living from prostitution is not legal, making me wonder how they walk that fine line), I don’t have a problem with it. Clearly, anyone who has perused a “menu” of options available at any of the spas in Macau knows that sex is a commodity available to all.
What concerns me, however, is the open solicitation going on directly on the casino floor. Males walking through the casinos were offered various services whether they wanted them or not. I was even approached on the elevator up to my room.
While I was in Macau, I had a few discussions with Asians and expats about my reaction. Most of them told me that I was being too critical—that there was a demand for prostitution and the girls in the casino were just filling that demand. I was told that Western culture isn’t Asian culture, and that I was too uptight about it. I should be more understanding, and live and let live.
OK, maybe I was too sensitive. After all, with all the fuss about the supposed organized-crime connections to the VIP operators, perhaps I was eyeing the Macau casinos with too discriminating an eye. After all, I’m from New Jersey, where gaming is squeaky clean and hookers are never allowed on the casino floor (and if you believe that, I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn I can sell you).
When I got back to Vegas, I was talking to one of my old-timer friends (I’ve got more and more of them as I become an old-timer myself). He explained that the connection of gaming with sex no doubt goes back millennia, but certainly to the early days of Las Vegas. The Strip in those days was a hotbed of gambling and sex, he says (like it’s not today with “gentlemen’s clubs” lining all roads leading to the Strip). Any gambler only needed to stroll into the lounge to have his choice of girls, he told me.
Maybe I want the girls in Macau to be a little more subtle. Maybe I want to see the Macau police roust a few of them to keep my Western sensibilities intact.
But then when I blogged about this on our LinkedIn website, I was informed that Singapore has specific regulations banning solicitation from the casino floors and holding the casino operator responsible for any lapse in oversight. And since Singapore is about to become the gold standard in Asian government oversight, maybe I’m right when this sort of thing surprises me in Macau. Maybe Macau is the exception and not the rule. Maybe regulators in Macau are going to have to take a greater role in their oversight of what goes on directly on the casino floor (and off it as pertains to the VIP operators).
But maybe not. Perhaps Macau will always be different and will always be sort of the “Wild West” of Asian gaming. I know that the operators hope it won’t change anytime soon—especially if that means a change in the SAR’s explosive growth.