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US Investors Turn Macau Into the 'Las Vegas' of Asia

Macau - once a sleepy Portuguese colony in southern China - is now about to surpass the American gambling capital, Las Vegas, as the world's biggest gambling destination. Betting on Chinese high rollers, America's top gaming companies are pouring billions of dollars into Macau to turn it into the Las Vegas of Asia. But as VOA's Heda Bayron reports from Macau, not everyone in the territory is a winner.

Construction runs 24 hours a day in Macau these days.

Since the government ended a local casino monopoly in 2001, U.S. gambling giants have invested billions of dollars in this small Chinese territory of less than a half million people.

The Las Vegas Sands Corporation built the world's largest casino in 2004. Next year, it will open The Venetian Macau - a replica of its flagship property in the United States.

The Venetian boasts a 3,000-suite hotel and 100,000 square meters of gambling, shopping, convention and hotel space.

Mark Brown, president of Sands Macau, says The Venetian will create a new market here - attracting the gamers but also shoppers, tourists and business executives.

He said, "You're going to have all the elements of Las Vegas. Shows, unbelievable entertainers will be coming, restaurants, shopping… I think a cluster of shops that's nowhere in the entire world."

"When you have all that in a building, in buildings, plus in an area that's true destination gaming, it will far surpass Las Vegas," he continued.

The Sands' competitors are also spending big money. The billion-dollar high-end Wynn casino resort opened in September. MGM Mirage is building its own billion-dollar complex to open in 2008.

Foreign competition has prompted Macau's old players to shape up. Stanley Ho, who held the casino monopoly here for decades, is opening a new property early next year - the Grand Lisboa.

They are all betting on China's growing wealth and its reputation for high rollers. Ten million Chinese tourists visited Macau last year, and the casinos have been a major draw.

A flood of investments and high-spending tourists rescued Macau's economy from the doldrums of the late 1990s, when unemployment reached seven percent as factories closed and relocated to mainland China.

Over the past three years, the economy surged on average 15 percent.

Andrew Pyne, the founder of a new airline, Viva Macau, said, "This place is one of Asia's hottest destinations and it's going to get hotter and hotter and hotter…. Incredible economic transformation taking place here. From 12,000 hotel rooms today to 75,000 in five years time."

But as the former Portuguese enclave opens up to the world, some residents say their home is changing too fast.

Traffic gridlock, soaring property prices and the influx of migrant workers are putting pressure on Macau's laidback lifestyle.

Sociologist Penny Chan of the Macau Social Research Society says not all residents are benefiting from the economic boom.

"Still some people cannot get a very good job and also they cannot enjoy a high salary. It seems that a small group of people can get rich because of the opening of the casinos," she said.

She explains that some residents complain that high paying jobs are going to foreigners and a growing number of students are dropping out of college to work in casinos - undermining the quality of Macau's labor pool.

Macau lawmaker, Ng Kuok Cheong, says high rents are already leaving some people homeless.

"Some people - especially the aged people - they have no income," he said. "They cannot afford the rent, the housing rent. They are forced to sleep on the street."

The government says it will use gambling revenues to improve public services and infrastructure - such as a planned light railway and free education.

Lawmaker Ng says some residents fear that Macau is becoming too dependent on Chinese tourists and the casinos they frequent.

He said, "After this period what will happen? Maybe mainland China will have an economic change. … But the rich people of mainland China they will discover the world."

"They will find that we cannot go again and again to Hong Kong and Macau, we can go to more and more places, enjoy more and more," he added.

Already, gambling analysts are predicting that this year Macau will surpass Las Vegas' annual gambling revenues of about seven billion dollars.

From a Chinese fishing village, to a Portuguese trading port to its return to Chinese rule in 1999, Macau is once again at a turning point. Macau residents are wondering how this big gamble will play out.