Macau relaxes COVID rules, but tourism and casinos have yet to rebound

MACAU (AP) — Only a few tourists strolled the undulating black-and-white cobblestone of Macao’s historic Senado Square on a recent weekday and many shops were closed.

The gaming hub on China’s southern coast near Hong Kong has endured some of the toughest virus checks in the world for nearly three years, and an easing of border restrictions after China rolled back its “zero- COVID” in early December is expected to provide a major boost to its tourism-driven economy.

But so far the worst wave of infections in China so far keeps away the hordes of high rollers that usually fill its casinos. From Dec. 23-27, the city saw a daily average of just 8,300 arrivals, according to police data. That’s just 68% of November’s level. The scene improved on New Year’s Eve with 28,100 visitors entering the city that day, but that’s only 66% of the level a year ago. The daily average was 108,000 in 2019, before the pandemic.

Last week, China announced that it would resume issuing passports for tourism, potentially creating a flood of Chinese going abroad, but also spicing up competition for Macao.

The companies hope the Lunar New Year holiday in late January will bring better luck to the territory of 672,000 people, a former Portuguese colony and the only place in China where casinos are legal.

“Tourists just come here to walk around instead of shopping,” said Antony Chau, who sells roasted chestnuts in the square known for European-style buildings that recall its history as a former Portuguese colony. “They just wander.”

When the coronavirus hit in 2020, the city’s gambling revenues plummeted 80% to just $7.5 billion from the previous year. In 2021, the figure fell back to $10.8 billion, but that’s still down 75% from the peak of $45 billion in 2013. Last year, gaming revenue was cut by half to $5.3 billion.

A rebound couldn’t come too soon for souvenir shop owner Lee Hong-se.

He said his business has been even calmer recently than before the relaxation of entry rules. Since entry to Macau requires a negative PCR test result before departure, many mainland Chinese were unable to travel because they were infected, he said. And now Macao and other parts of China are battling epidemics.

“I lack strength after enduring for three years,” he said.

Several hundred meters away, visitors enjoyed an unusual degree of tranquility at the Ruins of St. Paul, originally the 17th-century Mater Dei church.

Rain Lee, 29, visiting from Hong Kong with her husband, said she was happy not to face the crowds, but disappointed that so many businesses had been closed.

“A lot of stores are gone,” said Lee, a property manager. “I wish it was like the pre-pandemic days when all the shops were open, with lots of people walking the streets. It was more lively back then. »

Beijing visitor Xylia Zhang, 36, who was making her first trip outside the mainland since the start of the pandemic, was eager to try her luck in casinos.

“It’s quite exciting because I might lose the several hundred dollars (in Chinese yuan) that I had budgeted for,” she said. “I’ve been to casinos in Seoul and Las Vegas. But I’ve never experienced this in Chinese-speaking places.

The spike in cases in China has prompted some people to travel to Macau to get vaccinated with the Pfizer-BioNTech mRNA vaccine, which is not available on the mainland, the site reported last month. Caixin Chinese economic information. Macau University Hospital, which provides the service, did not respond to an emailed request for comment and its phone rang unanswered on Friday.

But there have been no signs of an influx of customers, especially not at the casinos.

The gaming halls of two major casinos were half empty on Wednesday, with only a few small groups of Chinese visitors seated around the slot machines and craps tables, the croupiers visibly annoyed by the lack of activity.

It will take some time for Macau to regain its pre-pandemic zest, said Glenn McCartney, associate professor of integrated resort and tourism management at the University of Macau.

“(For) tourism, you can’t snap your fingers, and things are starting to move,” McCartney said.

But he said Macau tourism officials have been holding roadshows in China during the pandemic, taking advantage of the scenic city’s location just across the border.

The Lunar New Year will bring a hint of the potential for a longer-term rebound in tourism, he said.

“That could be the signal.”

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