Outstripping Vegas

Updated: Mar 31 2007, 07:00am hrs
Looking like a giant, twinkling Faberge egg, and topped by a 52-story hotel tower in the shape of a soaring lotus flower, the new Grand Lisboa casino here caters to tens of thousands of tourists, mostly Chinese. They crowd around 170 baccarat tables and yank levers on hundreds of slot machines in a round-the-clock gambling frenzy, making it quite clear why this tiny territory west of Hong Kong is known as Asias Las Vegas.

The Grand Lisboa is also the crown jewel of a casino empire controlled by Stanley Ho, the strong-willed and secretive billionaire who for 40 years held the citys only gambling license. Ho maintained a lock on the gambling trade here despite longstanding allegations by government authorities worldwide that his casinos had ties to organized crime and were engaged in money laundering, and prostitution .

Today, five years after Hos gambling monopoly expired, his casinos are under assault from a group of ambitious Las Vegas tycoons who are investing billions of dollars in a city that recently passed the Las Vegas Strip as the worlds biggest gambling destination.

Enthusiastic at the prospect of operating in China, home to the worlds most fanatic gamblers, the Americans plan to transform this sleepy, former Portuguese colony into a glitzy bettors paradise, replete with luxury hotels, upscale shopping malls and, of course, lots of casinos. They also hope to bury Stanley Hos old casino empire, a collection of smoky ballrooms that thrived for decades by offering no-frills gambling.

Stanley Hos not going to do very well, boasts Sheldon G. Adelson, chairman of Las Vegas Sands Corp. and one of the big new investors here. Hes always been a monopolist. Hes never had to compete in a real market.

This tiny city already looks like a enormous construction zone. The Wynn Macau hotel and casino, from the Vegas heavyweight Steve Wynn, opened in September. The MGM Mirage has a huge project going up next door. And Las Vegas Sands is building the worlds biggest casino and convention center -- the nucleus of a mammoth, $12 billion development staged on a parcel of land reclaimed from the sea and rebranded as the Cotai Strip.

To counter this foreign invasion, Ho, 85, has announced a clutch of his own outsized projects, which include the Grand Lisboa, a pair of huge real estate and casino developments named Oceanus and Ponte 16, and a giant theme park called Fishermans Wharf. The average table in Macau earns three times more than a comparable table in Las Vegas, according to CLSA . And, some of Chinas high rollers are placing $200,000 bets in exclusive VIP rooms, which is one reason that Macau posted $6.9 billion in gambling revenue last year, outpacing Las Vegas.

NY Times / David Barboza