How the “Las Vegas of the East” Overcame Las Vegas Itself: A Short Primer on Macau’s Rise to Superstardom

Quick, answer this question: What is the largest gaming city in the whole world?

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If you answered Las Vegas- you’re DEAD WRONG. Sin City has been so deeply ingrained in our collective subconscious as the one and only gambling mecca, that it’s hard to imagine otherwise.
So, what is the gambling capital of the world? The answer is a few thousand miles away from Las Vegas- it’s Macau (alternate spelling: Macao).

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It’s amazing how this miniscule city, which barely reaches 12 square miles in terms of land area, can pack so much gambling punch in so small a space. But the figures do not lie. In 2013 alone, the city boasted a record-breaking $45.2 billion in gambling revenue- a figure that is nearly four times bigger than Las Vegas’s relatively paltry $11 billion. This also means that the average amount that is spent over an entire week in the Las Vegas Strip is equivalent to only that of the average daily wager in Macau.

Gambling is the lifeblood of Macau. It can be found in every nook and cranny of the city. In other countries, you can almost always find a Gideon bible stashed in the drawer beside your hotel bed. In Macau- it’s a brand new deck of cards. It’s almost as if hotel owners anticipate that their customers will be more interested in practicing their poker techniques instead of reading the bible for salvation during their stay at the “Las Vegas of the East.”

There are a lot of reasons why Macau managed to topple Las Vegas from the top of the gambling pinnacle. First off, it enjoys a relatively autonomous status as a Special Administrative of China. After Portugal transferred control of Macau back to the mainland (after administering the region since the mid-16th century) in 1999, China placed the city under the “one country, two systems” policy, thereby allowing it to pursue political and economic ventures free from interference.

Its autonomy gave Macau a huge boost. As gambling is illegal in mainland China, the city became the go-to place for “closeted” gamblers. Here is where they are free to indulge in their preferred vice, without fear of jail time and ostracism. The Chinese’s love for gambling presents an interesting paradox since they are known to be one of the most frugal cultures in the world; also they have a more serious approach to gambling. Gamblers in Macau are more emotionally-invested in their games, often treating gambling as an investment rather than as a past time.

Another reason why Macau has consistently been a popular destination for gamblers is that the place itself has an ambiance conducive for gambling. The place is near enough to the mainland and major ports to be easily accessible, and far enough from everything else for people to play in peace, away from prying and judging eyes. In Macau, there are only casinos and gambling houses- no gaudy tourist attractions and unnecessary distractions such as those found in noisy Las Vegas.