We blazed over the causeway in the thick, constant evening fog until suddenly I was surrounded by more light than I could digest. It was disorienting and anxiety-inducing, an over-stimulating visual feast that jammed the circuitry in my head and accelerated my respiration.
For the first time I understood what it must be like to witness the fabulous Las Vegas Boulevard for the first time. No, I wasn’t on that Strip: I was cruising its steroidal kid brother, a place of shocking change that takes place so quickly it makes even pre-recession Las Vegas seem stagnant. This is the street from whence profits come so fast and furiously that they prevented the bankruptcy of at least two of Nevada’s biggest corporations during the depths of its economic meltdown.
I was on the Cotai Strip in Macau. And if I had long since lost my ability to be bowled over by Las Vegas, that first — and second and third — breathless ride along a perfect, massively wide fresh ribbon of asphalt in this most unlikely place made the enormity of a development like MGM Resorts International’s CityCenter feel as if it were a very fancy doll house.
This is not a travel essay, and here’s why: Nobody expects you to ever go to Macau. There’s no marketing machine trying to excite you about the idea of flying more than 12 hours from the West Coast of the U.S. to lounge by the (polluted) South China Sea. Also, they don’t need you. I was told by a bellboy that when he sees Caucasian guests, he assumes they must be evaluators from the Forbes or Michelin travel guides.
And yet, if you care at all about modern Las Vegas, you have to understand — if not care about — what has happened in just the past eight years or so in this previously disregarded and anonymous part of China. It is, simply put, the first wholesale export of what we know to be Vegas, right down to Las Vegas Sands Chairman and CEO Sheldon Adelson actually filing a request to trademark the term “Asia’s Las Vegas.”
You’ve probably heard the numbers about Macau, but they bear repeating. Its casinos field more than $33.5 billion a year, five times more than Las Vegas. These gambling dens are vast plains of baccarat tables and salons; Venetian Macao Resort Hotel — a supersize replica of the Las Vegas original with three canals rather than just one — has the largest casino floor in the world at 550,000 square feet. That’s more than double that of Las Vegas’ MGM Grand. There are 800 table games there, a good number of which are baccarat; MGM Grand has about 140, including its poker tables.
Macau is the only place in China that allows legal betting, and that’s because gambling has flourished there since the 1800s, under colonial overlord Portugal. It became such a key piece of the economy there that Beijing couldn’t pull the plug when it regained control in the late 1990s.
Instead, the central government decided to try to disinfect the corrupt and violent destination of oppressive, crammed and unsafe casinos that had reigned since the 1960s — think Las Vegas during the mob era, minus the glamour. The handful that existed, led by a few gambling giants such as Casino Lisboa, were owned by Hong Kong billionaire Stanley Ho, a monopolist who also held a stranglehold over the privatized ferry system, one of the few means of getting to the Macanese peninsula. (There is now a land-based border crossing that is a manic scene of mainland Chinese people queuing up to cross over for gambling outings, but prior to the Chinese repossession of Macau, citizens rarely were permitted to go.)