Long a little-known stepsister to flashier, younger and bigger sibling Hong Kong, Macau -- China's "other" formerly European special administrative region -- is increasingly attracting the attention of Americans pondering Far East vacations.
With new hotels, casinos and attractions joining longtime historical and cultural draws, this 11.4-square-mile destination, comprising a peninsula and two small islands settled by Portuguese merchants in the 16th century, drew 297,000 visitors from the Americas in 2010, a 6% increase over 2009.
"People still think of Macau as the Las Vegas of the East, but more and more are looking at what else there is besides gambling," said Joao Rodrigues, New York-based spokesman for the Macau Government Tourist Office. "It's a place where people can see the combination of East and West in China."
There's certainly plenty for visitors to do when in Macau: In addition to numerous casinos, Vegas-style productions and attractions such as the 1,109-foot Macau Tower (which offers the world's second-highest bungee jump), the region is home to 314 restaurants, 153 bars, 66 karaoke clubs, 21 nightclubs and 16 health clubs. Nearly 1,500 tour guides are licensed to show visitors Macau's myriad sights, such as the 400-year-old Historic Center of Macau, designated China's 31st Unesco World Heritage Site in 2005. "The Unesco World Heritage status really drives home Macau's maintenance of the culture and history that it's so proud of," Rodrigues said.
And, of course, there are still those 33 casinos, which account for 40% of Macau's annual gross domestic product.
Luxury resort boom
Half of all U.S. visitors to Macau in 2010 stayed at least one night. The U.S. is the No. 3 source market in terms of length of visitor stay, with Americans staying an average of 3.5 nights.
According to the Macau tourist office, 65% of all foreign visitors, or more than 7 million people, stayed in the region's hotels last year, and half of those overnight guests chose five-star hotels. The average length of stay was 1.5 nights, and the average nightly rate at Macau's 62 hotels was $138.90.
Two hotels, the 414-suite and -villa Wynn Encore and 213-room Mandarin Oriental, opened in 2010. On tap for this year is the 5.9 million-square-foot, $14.9 billion Galaxy Macau complex, which will include three hotels (a 488-room Hotel Okura, a 246-suite Banyan Tree and a 1,500-unit Galaxy Hotel); restaurants; casinos; a nightclub, bars and lounges; a rooftop wave pool; and a 492-foot, white-sand beach.
Down the road, a third Wynn property and second MGM hotel are in the works, while Shangri-La and St. Regis properties "are still on deck" to open in Macau, according to Rodrigues. "If people want to see the latest in luxury hotels, spas and restaurants, they absolutely have to come to Macau," Rodrigues said.
Macau's tourism board is active in partnering with travel agencies abroad. It recently begun offering a new online specialist education course, its second in recent years.
"The first time around we had more than 1,000 graduates," Rodrigues said. "We just started [the second iteration] late last year, so it's still growing.
"We decided to reinvent it," he added. "We tried one [approach], now we're trying another. We're going to see which one fared better so we can expand on that course."
Program benefits include fam trip invitations; financial booking incentives, such as gift cards; and a subscription to the tourist office quarterly newsletter.
Some 20 tour operators currently sell Macau vacations in the U.S., including major brands such as Brendan Worldwide Vacations, Isramworld, Pacific Holidays, Ritz Tours & Travel and United Vacations. Macau is most often combined by both operators and independent travelers with nearby Hong Kong, 37 miles to the northeast. "We've been seeing more and more people combining Macau with mainland China, specifically the Pearl River delta cities, as well as other nearby cities in southeast Asia," Rodrigues said.
For more on Macau and its specialist program, visit www.macautourism.gov.mo.