Macau’s senior official responsible for tourism gave the clearest indication to date that the city was not looking to reduce the total number of tourists coming to Macau when judged year-on-year.
“We are not trying to reduce the number of tourists. That is not our goal. We are working towards sustainable tourist numbers in this sector. We are trying to diversify our tourism markets,” stated Maria Helena de Senna Fernandes (pictured), director of the Macau Government Tourist Office, indicating the city would like to welcome more visitors from outside the Greater China region.
The director added the government was to commission a study “this year” into the local tourism market before making any decision on policy.
She was speaking on Monday at a press conference to announce the next edition of the Global Tourism Economy Forum – an international event in collaboration with the World Tourism Organization, UNWTO, and to be held at the Venetian Macao from October 27 to 29.
In late June the territory’s government confirmed that Macau’s Secretary for Social Affairs and Culture, Cheong U, and mainland officials had discussed whether changes should be made to the Individual Visit Scheme (IVS). It allows mainland passport holders to visit Macau and Hong Kong as independent travellers rather than as part of a tour group.
In May, 727,356 mainlanders travelled to Macau on their own, up 21 percent year-on-year. IVS tourist numbers are up by 20.9 percent year-on-year in the first five months of 2014 to 3.8 million, according to GGRAsia calculations based on official data.
Local residents have expressed concerns in mainstream and social media about the growth in visitor arrivals and the ability of the city’s infrastructure to deal with the numbers. Some tourism experts and tourism industry insiders have called for a strategic plan to ascertain the city’s capacity to receive more visitors.
Some gaming analysts in turn have wondered since the June revelation on the IVS talks whether changing the structure of the local tourism market – possibly by tweaking the rules on the IVS visas for mainland tourists, even if total tourist numbers still rise year-on-year – would have a negative impact on the year-on-year growth of gambling revenue.
Also of concern to some investors was a clampdown – reported in mid-June – of alleged abuses in the transit visa system. This is where what’s thought to be a small but generally well heeled number of mainland visitors obtain visas for a third party destination – sometimes to a developing country – citing a business trip, then allegedly use it just to gamble in Macau.
Ms Senna Fernandes, speaking to GGRAsia on the sidelines of Monday’s press conference, confirmed that she also attended the meeting in Beijing where issues including the IVS programme were discussed.
“We reflected on the different opinions in the sector, not just from the business sector but from the citizens, the Macau residents, in general. So it’s not just going to be a simple solution such as open [the border] more [to ease congestion],” she told us.
“We discussed various different scenarios, but all of these need to be studied very well. The last thing you want to do is cause any instability to the market altogether,” Ms Senna Fernandes said.
She declined to be drawn on whether reducing duration of stay for individual visitors had been discussed.
“You have to carefully study what’s the impact on the industry as a whole. You can’t just say ‘Right let’s cut down on the number of visitors’.”
She added: “Any limitation [imposed] and then people would say ‘You’re limiting my right to travel’. It’s not going to be a simple solution like let’s cut down to ‘x’ number.”
Investment bank Morgan Stanley said at the Global Gaming Expo 2013 held in Macau that its research indicated that of the 28.1 million visitors to the city in 2012, only six million were unique visitors.
“We don’t have stat [istic] numbers [on repeat visitors] unfortunately,” Ms Senna Fernandes told GGRAsia.
“Probably there would be quite a number – especially from Guangdong – who actually come here quite often. But even Guangdong doesn’t make up all mainland visitors. It supplies something like 40 percent of mainland visitors.”
According to the World Tourism Organization, Macau was 20th globally and 5th in Asia Pacific region in terms of international tourist arrivals in 2012; in terms of tourism income in 2012, Macau ranked 5th around the world and 2nd in the Asia Pacific region.
“We shouldn’t always be looking [only] at the numbers themselves,” the tourist office director said.
“We have to see what kind of tourists we are getting. Probably with the same [stable] number of visitors, if they stay longer, you will get a better spend in terms of your visitor spend here in Macau.
“Right now the many of them [mainland tourists] come from Guangdong. How should we develop the international tourism but also [the tourism] within the Chinese mix? That’s a lot of work still to be done.”
Also during the press event, Pansy Ho Chiu King, co-chairperson of Macau casino investor MGM China Holdings Ltd and secretary-general of the annual forum, said Macau junket operators were helping to try and diversify Macau’s economy by investing in sectors other than gaming.
“They are starting now to move into different areas. It is natural that once they get to certain economies of scale they need to also reinvent their own ‘game’,” Ms Ho said.
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"I am not going to speculate on what the [casino licence refreshment] tender requirements would be. I have full confidence and faith in the Macau government to treat everyone fairly"
Wilfred Wong Ying Wai
President and chief operating officer of Macau-based casino operator Sands China