Beneath the neon glow of the legendary Las Vegas night, whispers of its dominion as the gambling mecca might be readily heard. Yet, whispered even less are tales of a distant city across the Pacific where fortunes teeter on the flip of a card and the roll of the dice. For nearly two decades, the Chinese enclave of Macau has silently dethroned Sin City, reigning supreme as the gambling capital of the world.
In an almost stealthy coup, Macau surpassed Las Vegas’ annual gross gambling revenue in 2006, when it first edged past the Nevada giant with a hearty sum of $6.95 billion to Vegas’ $6.69 billion. No mere fluke, this marked the start of a trend where this small pocket of Chinese sovereignty outpaced its American counterpart, the divide growing until, in 2019, Macau’s coffers brimmed with a staggering $36 billion in annual gambling revenue, almost sextupling Las Vegas’ substantial but lesser $6.6 billion haul.
The shift saw gambling titan Las Vegas Sands, once helmed by the late visionary billionaire Sheldon Adelson, set its course for eastern shores, casting its lot with Macau and Singapore. In a symbol of this new era, the company parted with its iconic Venetian, Palazzo, and the Venetian Expo, for which Apollo Global Management and VICI Properties rendered unto them a king’s ransom of $6.25 billion.
Amid the vibrant tapestry of Macau, a mere speck of land at 12.7 square miles, the city thrives, thanks in no small part to the casino taxes that gild the government treasury with over 80% of its revenue. A former Portuguese outpost nestled on the coast near Hong Kong, Macau was reintegrated with China in 1999 and, once the historic gaming monopoly held by Stanley Ho concluded in 2002, it transformed into a frontier of casino development and exuberance.
Unique amidst China’s gambling prohibitions, Macau enjoys the freedom as a “special administrative region.” This allowed titans of the casino world, such as Las Vegas Sands in 2004, followed by Wynn Resorts and MGM Resorts, to pour over $20 billion into the creation of opulent hotels, sprawling casinos, and the finest VIP suites to cater to the voracious mainland Chinese gamblers.
Astonishingly, the tables in Macau were once reported to command seven times the bounty of those in venerable Las Vegas, a testament to the seriousness of the region’s gamblers who come from a China where the average income hovers around merely $1,700 a year.
By 2019, Macau had become the linchpin for Wynn and Las Vegas Sands, accounting for 70% and 66% of their respective businesses. Yet, the winds of fortune are fickle, and the world of gambling found itself blindsided by the pandemic.
Stringent quarantine measures in light of Beijing’s “zero COVID” approach gutted Macau’s flourishing tourism. Visitor numbers plummeted from 39 million in 2019 to a meager 5.9 million in 2020. With revenue slashed to $7.56 billion, Las Vegas briefly recaptured its crown with $7.87 billion, bearing the dubious honor as the lowest yearly total in a quarter-century.
Fortunes, however, are ever in flux; China has since lifted quarantine-free travel. The first half of 2023 heralds Macau’s return to the apex as gross gambling revenue nears the $10 billion mark, handily outpacing Las Vegas’ $7.5 billion.
Unless fate deals another unpredictable hand, it’s a wager most will place that Macau’s supremacy in the world of gambling is likely to continue, unchallenged in the foreseeable future.