Macau, The Not Quite Vegas Of The East

Macau, The Not Quite Vegas Of The East


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Image courtesy: Stefan Magdalinski
This post is part of Project Pacific Circle, a journey of more than 25,000 miles from Orlando to Los Angeles, Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, Hong Kong and Japan.

Along the way, I flew on some of the world’s best airlines and shared my thoughts on the ground and in the air. The cash cost for the airfare alone would have been well more than $17,000. Using miles and points, however, I knocked the cost down to around $500. Learn how to travel like I do with PointsAway: The Definitive Guide To Free Flights & Nights.

When I think of Vegas, the word that comes to mind is legend. This is the town built by cowboys, then by the mob, then by Sinatra (and, well, still the mob). This is the town that was transformed by men like Jay Sarno and Steve Wynn, who brought forth a series of impossible flights of fancy built side to side for miles down a single street.

It’s a town where nothing lasts forever, but everything does, where stories grow more quickly in time than the towers on the Strip. It’s the town of Frankie, Dino and Sammy; the town of Danny Ocean and his crew; a town of big bets and of the best and most memorable triumphs and defeats. It’s a town where the impossible doesn’t seem simply possible, but downright likely.

The corny adage is that what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. This is true and false. Memories made there get inextricably tied to the place, but you absolutely take them with you.

Vegas isn’t a place. It’s an idea, and perhaps for some, an ideal.

It was with this thought in mind that I boarded a ferry from Hong Kong, heading westward to Macau.

Understanding Macau

It’s important to distinguish downtown Macau from the Cotai Strip, the nascent development a few miles and a bridge away. Ferries can take you directly to either from Hong Kong or Kowloon.

The downtown Macau ferry terminal is the bigger one and free shuttle buses run every 10 to 15 minutes between the terminal and all the major resorts. By using the ferry terminal as a hub, it’s possible to visit most points of interest in Macau as you’d like without setting foot in a taxi.

No matter which option you choose, the ride from Hong Kong to Macau will take about an hour. Fare prices are reasonable, at around $30 USD each way for an Economy ticket or $50 for an upper-deck reserved seat. I don’t recommend the upgrade, as the meal service and ability to disembark two minutes early is simply not worth the upcharge but if you buy your ticket truly last minute, these seats may be all that’s left.

In addition to ferry service from the city, it’s possible to go directly to and from Macau from HKG without ever officially entering Hong Kong, which is critical given that Hong Kong’s airport remains the best entry point to Macau for most of the world. Macau has its own international airport, but it’s not serviced by many carriers and is ill-equipped to do so. It’s extremely small, roughly the size of a regional airport in the United States.

The Cotai Strip

I started my expedition by taking a shuttle bus from the terminal to the Venetian Macau, the centerpiece of the Cotai Strip.

Opened in 2007, it’s the largest casino in the world, the largest single structure hotel building in Asia and the seventh-largest building in the world overall by floor area. Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire CEO of the Las Vegas Sands Corporation, envisioned the Venetian as the centerpiece of a new development so massive that it could rival the Las Vegas Strip itself.

Preceded by a few months by the Grand Waldo Hotel, the Venetian has since been joined by a Four Seasons, Conrad, Holiday Inn, Sheraton, Grand Hyatt and Hard Rock, as well as the Crown Towers, Galaxy Hotel, Hotel Okura and Banyan Tree Macau.

Stepping off the shuttle at Venetian is like stepping into a bizarro Vegas. Here is a building bearing close resemblance to the – real? – Venetian, though larger.

Across the way, the giant tower housing the Conrad, Holiday Inn and Sheraton is joined by the City of Dreams, the development including the Grand Hyatt and Hard Rock.

Everywhere else: cranes.

After the Venetian set the tone, an arms race began to develop competing properties nearby as quickly as possible. That’s why Wynn and MGM, which both already have locations just a few miles away in downtown Macau, are building additional properties on the Cotai Strip, to be joined by even more casinos and possibly a theme park. Most of these are expected to be completed in the next couple years.

Inside The Venetian

One could argue modern Las Vegas was born when Caesars Palace opened in August 1966. It took all the decades in between for the Strip to become what it is today. The Cotai Strip, by comparison, will have grown from dust to essentially full development in less than a decade. Based on my time at the Venetian, I’m left wondering exactly who all of this is supposed to serve, and who can possibly profit from such an insane rate of growth.

The Venetian was beautiful on the inside; the grand center hub area has an immense painted ceiling.

The gondolas and canal way present in Vegas make an appearance here, too, with shops lined in each direction.

The casinos felt fairly familiar, though many slot machines were understandably in Chinese and table games were curiously slanted heavily toward baccarat, which isn’t popular enough in Vegas to merit space outside the high roller’s room normally. On the whole, though, everything feels right, except for one small issue:

Almost nobody was there.

It was relatively early in the morning when I made my rounds through the property, but it was a Saturday. At 9AM, it makes sense that relatively few people might be milling about. While most stores in Vegas might have been open by then – or just stay open all the time – it was understandable that most shops didn’t open until a more standard time of 10AM. By 10:30 or 11, though, stores were open but shoppers were yet to be seen. I peeked back into the casino, but it was no more crowded than earlier.

What’s more puzzling is that Venetian – and all the other properties in Macau – put nearly all of their chips into the gaming and shopping baskets. Vegas is a more diversified entertainment town at this point, with countless Cirque Du Soleil shows, huge names in music and comedy, massive nightclubs and more. During the day, spa treatments, golf and a variety of day excursions take hold.

There are almost no shows in Macau, though; the Venetian opened with a Cirque production, but has since closed its theater for “renovations” and no announcements have been made about forthcoming productions. Other resorts are just as quiet. There’s shopping available to the point of nausea and standard gaming floors, but the rest of what makes Vegas, Vegas, just isn’t here.

I chalked this up to the newness of the area. While the Venetian itself felt finished, so much of the Cotai Strip gives off the aura of “under construction” that it’s tough to get a true sense of the place.

Downtown Macau

I thought perhaps things might be different downtown. Here, MGM had its property, gorgeous but nothing like the MGM Grand is Las Vegas:

A Wynn resort that looks like a two-thirds replica of the one in Vegas is next door. These properties are more established and more centrally located.

I made my way to MGM first and was struck by its beautiful atrium up front.

MGM feels quite different than Vegas’s MGM Grand but unlike anything in Cotai, seemed to have a firm sense of identity. Quieter than Vegas but colorful, open and thoughtful in design, an emphasis on dining balanced out a substantial but far less grotesque number of shopping options than could be found at Venetian. A few more people were milling about but as was the case at the Venetian, many appeared to be day visitors far more intent on exploration and picture-taking than on putting any coins in machines or cash on a table.

By this point, it was nearly noon. While certainly different than the scene at night, Vegas at noon on a Saturday is certainly alive. When I decided to have lunch at one of MGM’s restaurants, though, I was the only customer for the first half of my meal. Service was impeccable and the 3-course, fixed-price meal was a good value. A few groups of diners could be seen at another restaurant closer to the gaming floor, but it generally felt like the slowest day of the year might in Nevada.

While MGM had its own flavor, Wynn felt most like Vegas, if only because Wynn’s Las Vegas location caters with such care to an Asian audience. Shops were arranged similarly; inside gardens were replaced with outside gardens, but otherwise, it felt like the closest match. A grand rotunda featuring the zodiac was a major set piece located between the casino and shops.

Except, again, it was shocking how few people were there. Shopkeepers and sales clerks stood expectantly in their doorways, waiting for someone, anyone, to come in and at least casually think about buying something. The casino floor was again free from nearly any excitement, with only a few serious gamblers hunching over their chips while old ladies played slots.

Something’s Missing

I went to Macau expecting to see the Vegas of the East. What I found was something much stranger. The Cotai Strip feels like something someone would build if shown a single picture of the Las Vegas Strip and given no additional context. The inside of the casinos are all missing the excitement and sense of adventure that are fundamental to the Vegas sensibility. The lack of entertainment options leaves only the down-to-business choices of shopping and gaming.

Most puzzling is the near complete absence of people: if they’re not there on a balmy Saturday in the summertime, when are they there, if at all? Who’s keeping the shops open? How is the casino making money? How many rooms in the hotels are actually occupied? It feels almost like a movie set that’s been built but not yet populated for shooting. Or, perhaps all of this has been built and just a handful of unfathomably wealthy men sustain it, losing untold millions in short spurts at odd hours.

It’s difficult to believe the fact that more than two-thirds of Las Vegas Sands’ earnings come from a place that seems like such an underutilized boondoggle, or that every other casino operator could be so obsessed with conquering this “market”.

Maybe Macau rests until the late afternoon, wakes up for dinner and plays all night. Perhaps I simply missed it. But impressive as its buildings may be, Macau can’t compare to Las Vegas. It copies the most profitable aspects admirably, perhaps, but even these are only surface replications. It’s hard to imagine excitement building around a craps table there, where everyone can feel like part of the action even if it’s not their money on the line. It’s hard to imagine a slot machine ever paying out a jackpot. It’s hard to imagine anyone epically splurging in one of the stores instead of simply buying expensive things they can, nonetheless, clearly afford.

What Macau lacks is what can’t be built in a year, or two, or ten. This surface replication might suffice for those interested only in the basest transactions, but it comes across as heartless to those looking for something more. Macau can’t touch Las Vegas on an experiential level and won’t, no matter how much more money is poured into its imitation Strip, because grand as it all may be, it doesn’t leave you with the impression that the impossible is probable. It lacks spirit and daring. It lacks whimsy. It lacks Sinatra. It lacks legend.

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About PointsAway
Casey Ayers is a consultant and entrepreneur with a passion for travel. After amassing enough miles and points to travel anywhere in the world for almost free in less than six months, he developed PointsAway as a way to help others make travel dreams big and small come true.
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