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Tiny Chinese enclave remakes gambling world, Vegas

Posted: July 6, 2013 at 11:30 a.m.

LAS VEGAS — Most people still think of the U.S. gambling industry as anchored in Las Vegas. They might think of vestiges of the mob, or the town's ill-advised flirtation with family-friendly branding in the 1990s.

But they would be wrong.

The center of the gambling world has shifted 16 time zones away to a tiny spit of land on the southern tip of East Asia.

An hour's ferry ride from Hong Kong and an afternoon flight from half the world's population, Macau is the only place in China where casino gambling is legal.

Each month, 2.5 million tourists flood the glitzy boomtown to try their luck in neon-drenched casinos that collect more winnings than the entire U.S. gambling industry. The exploding ranks of the Chinese nuevo riche sip tea and speak in hushed tones as they play at baccarat, a fast-moving game where gamblers are dealt two cards and predict whether they will beat the banker.

The textile factories that stood shoulder to shoulder with small-time gambling halls as recently as the early 2000s have given way to hulking American-run enterprises larger than anything found in the states. The gangs, prostitutes and money-launderers that once operated openly in this town half the size of Manhattan have at least receded from public eye.

"It was a swamp," said Sheldon Adelson, CEO of Las Vegas Sands, as he looked back on his early, risky venture in the forgotten colonial outpost.

"They wanted to change the face of Macau from the gambling dens to that of conventions and resorts," he added during recent testimony, flashing a jack-o-lantern grin and boasting that it would have taken a genius to imagine the profits that he could reap there.

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