Despite travel restriction fears - Macau revenues up

But fears that new visa restrictions may slow recovery

After months of slow business occasioned by the economic meltdown and political interference, Macau land casinos seem to be on an improvement curve, judging by the latest numbers from the Macau Inspection and Coordination Bureau.

The Bureau reported that casino revenue climbed 22.3 percent in the three months July to September, reaching 31.78 billion patacas ($3.81 billion).

Despite the positive statistics, shares generally traded down, with operators reportedly still concerned over recent government moves that have again introduced visa restrictions hampering travel to the gambling islands from other Chinese mainland regions. Visas are now restricted to one visit every two months (see previous InfoPowa reports) instead of one a month.

The tightened travel restrictions were viewed by some analysts and casino executives as an attempt to cool growth in the city's gambling industry amid growing unease that the cash flooding into casinos could be siphoning off funds needed to spur China's domestic economy.

Other challenges face the island gambling industry. The government has resumed its review of gaming policy, disrupted by the global financial crisis. TamPak Yuen, the government's secretary for economy and finance, said recently that Macau's social and natural resources are very limited, and the over-expansion of the gaming industry could have a negative impact on the diversification of the local economy, which is the long term goal of the government.

He was speaking on measures supported by the six major operators on the island to restrict further expansion of gambling on the island.

The implementation of such restrictions depends on the completion of the government review and its recommendations, Yuen said. It was therefore likely that a final policy leading to a regulatory regime may not be possible within the term of office of the incumbent administration, which ends in December 2009.

Gambling operations in Macau generated revenues of 10.8 billion patacas (US$1.37 billion) in September, surging by 52 percent over the same period last year. Dr. Stanley Ho's SJM group, which owns 20 of Macau's 33 local casinos, was still the industry leader with a market share of 30 percent in September.

In a further move to cool down the gambling market, the goverment has prevailed upon Macau operators to reduce and restrict the amounts paid in commissions to junket operators - agents that bring the high rollers who are the main engine driving the business - to the casinos. In return, the casino operators pay a percentage of bets placed by VIP gamblers to the junket operators as commissions.

The commission rate rose to a high of 1.35 percent as competition heated up after the liberalisation of Macau's gaming sector in 2002, compared with just 0.8 percent when the sector was still monopolised by SJM, the newspaper Xinghua reports. Macau's six licensed gaming operators have now generally agreed that the maximum commission rate should be fixed at 1.25 percent, a number accepted by the government.

Yuen revealed that the government is drafting new laws and rules concerning the age limit of persons entering local casinos and the location of slot machine halls. The draft bill will soon be submitted to the Macau legislature, and proposes an increase in the minimum age for casino entry to 21 years, a limit that will also apply to casino staff. The bill also contains restrictions on the setting up of new slot machine halls.

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