POSTSCRIPT / April 5, 2009 / Sunday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Macau decline raises doubts on Pagcor City

MACAU – One of the top drawers of this tourism-gambling mecca is the Venetian Macau, which recreates in faithful detail Venice, the storied city of canals and gondolas in northern Italy.

Many visitors, among more than two million warm bodies flocking monthly to this former Portuguese colony, gush that the Venetian is even grander than the original standing in splendor in the glittering sands of Las Vegas.

The Venetian here boasts of convincing replicas of such Renaissance landmarks as St. Mark’s Square, Campanile Tower and other sights. The canals have real gondolas with singing gondoliers (some of whom reportedly Filipinos).

The varied attractions make a visitor forget that Macau’s core business is gambling. He is surrounded not just by the casinos but also by an array of other entertainment, shops retailing signature brands, and restaurants offering exquisite cuisine with international flavzor.

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TIGHT HOLD: Beneath the bustle is the statistical fact that visitors, most of them from the mainland and Hong Kong (about 45 minutes away by high-speed ferry), have actually declined as a result of restrictions and the effects of the worldwide financial crisis.

The first and the last European colony in China, Macau is governed with a tighter rein by Beijing than its sister autonomous region of Hong Kong.

Portuguese traders settled here in the 16th century and administered the region until the handover on Dec. 20, 1999. Macau operates with a high degree of autonomy from Beijing until at least 2049, or 50 years after the turnover.

But probably because of its British orientation steeped in human liberties, Hong Kong appears to enjoy more elbowroom than Macau raised in Portuguese colonial tradition.

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CLAMPDOWN: Although a favorite destination of visitors from all points of the compass, Macau’s main customers are is still the hordes of gambling, shopping and sightseeing natives from the mainland bringing disposable cash.

But lately the Chinese themselves — particularly the moneyed representatives of a burgeoning population of more than 1.3 billion — cannot just come over here as they used to.

Now required to get a government permit to visit, Chinese appear to be discouraged by the control procedures.

The Macau Statistics and Census Service reported last March 27 that the number of visiting Chinese from the mainland has dropped by 33.3 percent.

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DECLINE: Last February, the number of visitors and non-resident arrivals totaled 2,245,660. Visitor arrivals numbered 1,652,377, down by 17.3 percent compared with February last year.

A breakdown showed that those who came from the mainland numbered 827,804 (50.1 percent of total arrivals), down by 22 percent year-on-year. Those traveling under the so-called Individual Visit Scheme for the locals dropped by 33.3 percent to 460,960.

Visitors from Hong Kong (540,668) and Taiwan (91,218) fell by 12.3 percent and 12.2 percent, respectively. But those from Thailand (21,480) went up by 76.1 percent and those from Japan (35,265) rose by 36.9 percent.

Those who leave on the same day numbered 889,308, accounting for 53.8 percent of the total arrivals. Of these same-day visitors, 446,325 came from the mainland.

In the first two months of 2009, visitor arrivals totaled 3,565,721, down by 8.5 percent year-on-year. Visitors from the mainland (1,777,680) and Taiwan (194,622) dropped by 15.8 percent and 7.9 percent, respectively. But those from Hong Kong (1,185,994) went up by 6.7 percent.

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REASONS: The drop in arrivals is widely attributed to the government restrictions on the Chinese visiting this gambling mecca. Beijing has been reported as frowning on big-time gambling by the natives, but this explanation has not been satisfactory.

One naughty explanation says Beijing is deliberately giving Macau investors a hard time to force them to lose heart and eventually leave the wobbly enterprise, and its technology, to the government. This line is not readily accepted.

Many businessmen we have talked with attribute the declining arrivals to the global financial crisis. They do not believe the theory that gambling is recession-proof.

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PAGCOR CITY: Seeing Macau’s decline after its initial spectacular burst, a Filipino visitor finds himself making comparisons with the ambitious entertainment city that the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. wants to build on a reclaimed area in Parañaque.

If Macau, which is Pagcor’s model (or rival) for its P20-billion project, is now going through the doldrums — possibly a victim of global recession — is there hope for Pagcor’s bid to grab the title of gambling capital in the region?

After the bold announcements that big-time investors were rushing to Manila to put in their billions in Pagcor City, there is now only a whimper of a follow-through.

Some big players who had invested in Macau have announced intentions to scale down or back out. Now if Macau self cannot keep them, what more of Pagcor?

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DIRTY CORE: Aside from the local resistance from groups identified with the Church, the Pagcor scheme appears to suffer from a lack of intrinsic core value.

First of all, an investment in Parañaque is an investment in the Philippines. It so happens that the Philippines — a least at the moment — does not look attractive as an investment area.

Secondly, why would a serious investors put his money in a project tainted by politics? It is being pushed by a Palace crony intending to run kuno for president (actually to slide down later to a lower berth?) and who is co-terminous with the President who had appointed him?

Thirdly, with the country already wallowing in vice and corruption, why throw in more dirt — in the name of prosperity — by bringing in large-scale gambling disguised as entertainment? Cannot the government think of something more respectable?

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of April 5, 2009)

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