Macau betting on more hotels despite economic challenges

Macau has about 30,000 hotel rooms and is expected to add 4,200 more this year.
Macau has about 30,000 hotel rooms and is expected to add 4,200 more this year.
A decade after Macau surpassed the Las Vegas Strip as the world's largest gaming market, some of the highest rollers in the casino-hotel resort sector are set to place among their biggest bets yet, despite the odds being against them

Three hotels totaling more than 4,200 rooms with a combined development cost of an estimated $8.2 billion are slated to come on line later this year as Macau faces the twin challenges of a flattening economy and a devalued currency from mainland China, by far its largest tourism source.

Las Vegas Sands, the largest U.S. casino-hotel resort owner, plans to open the 3,000-room, $2.7 billion Parisian Macao in late 2016; the property will include a half-scale replica of the Eiffel Tower.

A rendering of the planned 3,000-room Parisian Macao, owned by Las Vegas Sands.

Wynn Resorts, which last fall pushed back the opening of its 1,700-room Wynn Palace Cotai from March to late June, is spending $4.1 billion on its floral-themed resort that will include "SkyCabs" ferrying guests over an 8-acre lake.

Not to be outdone, Asia-based tycoon Stephen Hung is building The 13, with an estimated cost of $7 million per room, which is reported to be the world's highest per-room cost anywhere.

The 200-room property will feature suites ranging from 2,000 to 30,000 square feet and will provide a fleet of Rolls-Royce Phantoms for guest shuttle service. The baroque-style hotel is slated to open in late summer.

The timing is not propitious. Last year, visitor arrivals to Macau fell 2.6%, to 30.7 million. More importantly, visits from mainland China, which accounts for two-thirds of Macau's tourism, fell 4%, while per-capita visitor spending, which peaked in late 2013, was down about 15% last year, according to the Statistics and Census Service of Macau.

"Business from mainland China has suffered," said Elizabeth Chin, the owner of ECI Travel, Food and Wine travel agency, and chair of the Pacific Asia Travel Association's New York chapter. "Companies have put a hold on excessive spending."

Further constraining tourism spending is the Chinese devaluation of its currency, the yuan. In August, China's government undertook the largest single-day devaluation of the yuan since 1994, cutting its value by about 2% in order to spur international demand for the country's goods. As of late last week, the yuan was worth 15.45 cents, about 4% less than a year ago.

Nor have things improved much this year. While January's overnight guest total rose 12% from a year earlier, to 895,000, occupancy fell 3.2% from January 2015, to 76.5%, because of greater room supply. More telling, the number of package-tour visitors from mainland China plunged 33% from a year earlier, to 455,000.

As a result, hotel owners have suffered. MGM Resorts International, which owns 51% of the 582-room MGM Macau, said the property's fourth-quarter revenue dropped 31%, largely on a plunge in activity at its VIP gaming tables. Gaming was also way down at the Wynn Macau, where fourth-quarter occupancy was at a healthy 96% but revenue per available room fell 5.2%.

The Las Vegas Sands, whose estimated $10 billion in Macau resorts includes the massive Sands Cotai Central district, said in January that its Macau fourth-quarter operating income had dropped 25% from a year earlier, as room rates at the Sands Cotai's hotels fell 18%. Las Vegas Sands CEO Sheldon Adelson, in a late January statement, called Macau's operating environment "challenging" and said the company was focusing on "higher-margin mass and non-gaming segments and the geographic diversification."

Such conditions, especially the drop in the China source market, were not foreseen a decade ago when Wynn Resorts entered what was until then a Chinese-dominated resort sector by opening the 600-room Wynn Macau (the resort was expanded to 1,014 rooms in 2010). The MGM Macau opened the following year.

The biggest bets, however, have been made by Las Vegas Sands, which opened its 2,989-room Venetian Macao in 2007 and kicked off the first phase of Cotai Central in early 2012 by developing the Hilton Worldwide-branded Conrad Macao (636 rooms) and the world's largest hotel under InterContinental Hotels Group's Holiday Inn badge at 1,224 rooms.

The 400-room St. Regis Macao Cotai Central, which operates under the Starwood luxury badge but was built by Las Vegas Sands as part of its Cotai Central district, opened in 2015.

A year later, Las Vegas Sands completed the two-phase opening of the world's largest hotel under Starwood Hotels & Resorts' Sheraton brand at 4,001 rooms. And last year, Las Vegas Sands opened the 400-room St. Regis Macao Cotai Central, the world's largest hotel under that Starwood brand as well.

As a result, Macau's hotel inventory ballooned to about 30,000 rooms by the end of last year, with another 6,300 rooms slated to come on line by the end of 2017, according to the Macau Government Tourism Office. With Macau covering just 12 square miles, the territory's hotel density of about 2,500 rooms per square mile is twice that of Las Vegas and six times that of New York City.

With that in mind, Macau's tourism bureau and its hoteliers are looking to broaden the territory's appeal beyond both its gaming roots and its mainland China source-market focus. The U.S. was the largest feeder market outside of Asia last year, with visits to Macau rising 0.6%, to more than 182,000.

Chin, who said her Macau bookings have been steady, does not discount that possibility, noting that the opulence in many of Macau's luxury properties surpasses much of what's offered in either mainland China or Hong Kong. She added that Macau has emerged as a culinary and entertainment destination, while its roots as a Portuguese territory have made it a cultural draw.

"The amenities are so unique and make it attractive to the American traveler," Chin said. "Most people used to go to Macau from Hong Kong for a day trip. Now, we've been finding that people are staying for one to three nights."

JDS Travel News JDS Viewpoints JDS Africa/MI