Hanging from China's gigantic underbelly on its southeastern coast, Macau covers all of 29.2 sq. km (11.4 sq. miles). About 64km (40 miles) west of Hong Kong across the Pearl River Estuary, it served as Portugal's last holdout in Asia until 1999, when it was handed back to China. Portugal's other former Asian strongholds, Goa and Malacca, had long before been claimed by neighboring powers.
With its unique mixture of Portuguese and Chinese cultures, Macau makes an interesting day trip or overnight stay if you want to get away from the bustle of Hong Kong. Although Macau's rising reputation as a gambling and shopping mecca -- spurred by the grand openings of ever larger and grander casinos with equally ostentatious shopping malls -- is a major attraction for many, the city also has its fair share of beaches, fortresses, churches, temples, gardens, and excellent museums to explore. What's more, even though prices have risen sharply the past few years, Macau is still a bargain compared to Hong Kong, especially when it comes to dining and accommodations (you can bask in luxury in Macau for a fraction of what you'd pay in the former British colony). And finally, Macanese cuisine, unique to Macau and combining ingredients from former Portuguese trading ports from around the world, is both inexpensive and delicious, especially when accompanied with Portuguese wine. If you're looking for a vacation from your vacation, I heartily recommend Macau.
Macau is no longer off the tourist radar, in large part because it is now touted as the Las Vegas of the East. Whereas only 7.4 million tourists visited Macau in 1999, 21.7 million tourists crossed its borders in 2009, a number fast approaching the number of tourists entering Hong Kong during the same year (29.5 million). More than 90% of visitors are from mainland China (which relaxed travel restrictions in 2003 and where gambling is illegal), Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Casinos were always a part of Macau's draw, especially for Hong Kong Chinese, but deregulation of the gaming industry in 2002 paved the way to an explosion of ritzier, more conspicuous casinos, including big-name imports from the United States like the Venetian and MGM Grand. The former Portuguese territory's transformation into Asia's Las Vegas has played nicely with Macau's vigorous policy of land reclamation, which has more than doubled its size over the last 2 decades and added high-rises, superhighways, housing complexes, and huge entertainment and shopping complexes. Compared to the real Las Vegas, however, Macau seems underdeveloped, with only 19,600 hotel rooms compared to Las Vegas's 148,000. And yet, Macau's annual gaming revenue now exceeds that of Las Vegas (in 2009, Macau's gambling revenues were about twice as high as those of Las Vegas), and it doesn't take a rocket scientist to recognize Macau's huge potential market just across the border. There are so many hotels coming onto the Macau scene, it's hard to say who is not scooping up property here, with Four Seasons, Hyatt, Hard Rock, and Mandarin Oriental recently opening their doors and Sheraton, Shangri-La, St. Regis, and Ritz-Carlton soon to follow. Although growth has slowed the past couple of years due to the global economy, Macau has fared better than many other Asian destinations.
Macau bears almost no resemblance to the laid-back town I first laid eyes on in the 1980s. A sleepy backwater just 2 decades ago -- when the local populace got from place to place unhurriedly by pedicab and the road from the ferry to downtown was a lonely stretch of potholes -- Macau is changing so rapidly that old-timers are right when they complain that the place isn't what it used to be. In fact, Macau is more than it used to be, with land reclamation and new construction dramatically altering the city's skyline in just 20 short years, with no end in sight. The small downtown, built in the era of pedicabs with its narrow lanes, is ill equipped to deal with Macau's ever-increasing traffic. Indeed, city planners seem so intent on expansion, I fear that much of Macau's unique architectural legacy and charm will be lost in an ever-growing concrete jungle.
Needless to say, the influx of new capital, new businesses, and new jobs has dramatically altered the lives of local residents. A labor shortage has brought intense competition, with many employees poached from existing Macau businesses or the service industry in Hong Kong, the Philippines, and other Asian countries. Small, family-owned establishments, unable to compete with salaries offered by the big casinos and rising real-estate prices, are especially feeling the economic squeeze. With more and more workers moving to Macau, housing prices have exploded. To assuage public resentment, the Macau government has given cash handouts to residents the past few years so that they could share in the wealth the casinos have created.
Macau's development as a tourist mecca has, of course, brought some positive changes. When I first came to Macau, its downtown was crumbling and neglected, and there were few attractions beyond its casinos, churches, a couple of ruined forts, and a lone museum (the Maritime Museum). In the 1990s, however, the small downtown underwent a major renovation, with the restoration of its main plaza and its Mediterranean-influenced, colonial-era buildings with their arched, shuttered windows. In 2005, Macau's historic center was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, encompassing 8 squares and 22 temples, churches, mansions, fortresses, and other historic buildings and monuments. The restaurant scene has exploded, offering a variety of international cuisines. There are now more attractions than you could ever visit in a day.
But the things that drew me to Macau in the first place -- the unique blend of Chinese and Portuguese culture, architecture, and food -- remain irresistibly in place. It's as though two Macaus now exist: the sterile new developments and glitzy casinos on reclaimed land; and the old downtown of candy-colored colonial buildings, banyan trees, narrow hilly streets, and low-key neighborhood restaurants.
The only pedicabs driven today are after the tourists' dollar, but Macau still possesses a lifestyle that is way less frenetic than that of Hong Kong. In fact, compared to the former British colony, Macau is downright Lilliputian, and, with its mixture of Portuguese and Chinese elements, feels different from Hong Kong, different from China -- different from anywhere else. Maybe it's the jumble of Chinese signs and stores mixed in with freshly painted colonial-style buildings, or the Buddhist and Taoist temples alongside Catholic churches. Maybe it's because people smile here more readily than they do in Hong Kong, seem more relaxed, and friendlier. It's an attractive mix -- Portuguese flair blended with Chinese practicality -- all in a setting found nowhere else in the world.
There is no doubt in my mind that the world will be hearing more about Macau. It has clearly set its sights to become Asia's top gambling, conference, resort, and shopping destination, making it a fascinating study if you want to see what the new China is all about. Though I'm not sure whether Macau will be able to retain its historic charm as it strives to become Asia's major leisure destination, that's a gamble this former Portuguese enclave is clearly willing to take.