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Not just a matter of luck

Interview - February 1, 2012
Dr. Manuel Joaquim das Neves, Director of Macau’s Gaming Inspection and Coordination Bureau, discusses the value of the country’s gaming industry to its economy

How do you explain the growing and resilient economy of Macau, when the world is facing the worst economic downturn?

The economy of Macau is based on the gambling business. After the liberalization, one of the most important policies of the new government was to liberalize the gambling sector. There was a monopoly for 40 years. The Government decided to liberalize the gambling sector and attract new investors to other gambling related activities, like tourism, entertainment and MICE in particular. We opened an international tender, which was a success because we attracted the most important gambling companies. We selected 3 companies – 1 local (SJM) and 2 foreign companies.

We could make a success because we had the support of China. The economy in China has grown a lot and very fast over the past couple of years. Macau has benefited from this hugely. In recent years more than 20 million people have visited, the majority of which have come from mainland China. Today Macao offers a lot of entertainment, shopping and good restaurants – not just casinos. But the Government feels that it needs more to sustain the growth in the coming years. So recently we decided that casinos will not play as great as a role and we implemented measures to increase diversification.

Are you taking Las Vegas as an example?

Yes. It sets a good example to us. We want to balance everything, especially MICE.

Macau is a very small city but it can offer all kinds of services and opportunities, particularly for MICE. Macau is an example of the combination of 2 cultures, Portuguese or European culture and Chinese culture.

Speaking of good services, your bureau has been in charge of guaranteeing good gaming services, how is it working?

We inspect casinos 24 hours a day. We have a surveillance team which checks the gaming rooms. All the gaming operators know what they can do. We have many internal control requirements. We also have an audit team who visits the casinos often and also do spot checks. Everything happening in the casinos must be approved by us. Even if they move a table from one place to another, they have to get our approval. 

We have to control all operations. You can check the revenues of all machinery online.The machinery comes from the US and Australia.

The US and Macau are working closely in the area of transparency…

Yes. Macau is now a member of the Asia-Pacific Anti Money Laundering group. They evaluate us based on what we are doing. We have been doing a lot with them in recent years. We work with the US either directly or through the US consulate. We are in close contact with the US regulators. We are cooperating with them. We are a member of the International Association of Gambling Regulators. Every year there is a conference for all the regulators and people related to the industry. The most important regulators in the world are in this organization. A lot of information changes and if anything happens we can contact them about specific issues. We are always learning and exchanging information.

The Philippines, Singapore and South Korea are also trying to develop the gambling industry. How would you like to see Macau defending its position? How can it remain a leader?

Singapore opened 2 years ago and it has not affected Macau yet mainly because of the strong base of Macao. I don’t think Macao will be affected in the short-term. But it may be affected in the long-term, so that is why we are making a big effort to diversify the economy. We are trying our best to make Macao become an international leisure and entertainment centre. In the next 10 to 15 years we will have lots of different projects. There will be a bridge connecting Zhuhai, Hong Kong and Macao for example. The central government is developing Hengqin Island which is next to Macao, and Macao will probably be benefited from this development.

Macau is the single largest gaming destination in the world but we are talking about modest diversification towards services. What role do you think gaming will play once the Macau economy is diversified?

Gaming will probably play a key role but it will not be the centre of the economy then. We have had a lot to offer within gaming since the liberalization, but we want to offer more varieties to our visitors. We are encouraging the gaming operators to include more integrated facilities and entertainment items in their new projects.

Studies suggest that growth in 2012 will be sustained by big projects, like it was with the Galaxy opening in 2010. What do you think of this?

Yes, it probably will as a new project of Sands China is going to be opened in the first quarter of 2012. The growth will remain strong or not mainly depends on the global economy.

But there are still big openings here, despite the fact that there was a slowdown in Las Vegas. There is expected to be 20% growth in the first quarter this year in Macau, which means that the casino openings are playing a big role.

20 years ago construction was booming in Las Vegas and this made the economy grow. I hope that the growth here will continue, but the global economy must recover first. If not, it will affect everyone. What is happening in Europe is terrible. I hope the economy will recover soon.

How important do you think it is to brand the Macau economy in the US as a dynamic economy that is still growing?

Another big factor contributing to the success of Macau is foreign investment, especially US investment.

And do you not think that the American visitors could become more important as well?

We welcome and treasure visitors from all over world. Since we have casinos operated by US investment and we hope more American visitors would come over.

In terms of branding and international image, how would you like to see Macau positioned?

We do not need to be number one. I want Macau to be a good place to visit, especially for families. There are World Heritage Sites and various kinds of entertainment in Macau. I would like Macau to be a place for family visitors. We want to offer entertainments for everybody. We also have a rich and unique culture, which is a combination of eastern and western cultures, for our visitors to explore and experience. 

You also do not like to be considered as part of Hong Kong.

No, Macao and Hong Kong are different. Macao is working hard on becoming a world leisure and entertainment centre while Hong Kong has been an international commercial centre for a long period of time. We have our own roles and so Macao cannot be considered as part of Hong Kong.

I would like to talk about your personal career. You have spent over 25 years in the gaming industry and you won an award for the Gaming Regulator of the Year. What inspired you to take your current position?

I was selected mainly because of the success in Macau in recent years, especially in terms of gaming revenue. I think we have done more than Las Vegas andSingapore altogether maybe in recent years. It is amazing for us. We attract a lot of visitors and we have benefited from China’s economic growth, and the central government’s visa policy has really helped us. Before, it was very difficult for Chinese citizens to come to Macau.

Given all of your experience and having contributed to Macau moving towards a fully services-oriented economy, what gives you the most personal satisfaction?

I am a lucky man to have the opportunity to see all this transformation and to be part of it. 10 to 15 years ago Macau was totally different; it could just offer a few choices to our visitors. Having the opportunity to see things developing is unique. We have a project coming up to transform Macau as a tourism destination. We can redevelop buildings and create more entertainment facilities.

What would your final message be to the 3.3 million readers in the US?

I suggest that they visit Macau. Macau is not just famous for gaming – it has more to offer than that, particularly the cultural aspects. There is a smooth combination between the 2 cultures.