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Macau looks beyond China to fuel tourism boom  Aug 14, 2008

BEIJING - The tiny former Portuguese colony of Macau wants to attract more international visitors to reduce its reliance on Greater China, and hopes to do that partly by moving upmarket, a senior official said on Thursday.

Tourism in Macau, which returned to Beijing's rule in 1999, is booming on the back of visits by increasingly wealthy Chinese tourists and a massive expansion of its gambling industry.

Revenues in Macau's $15 billion gaming industry overtook those of Las Vegas in late 2006. Macau now has 29 casinos, run by the likes of Las Vegas Sands Corp and MGM Mirage and more are on the way.

Last year almost 30 million people visited Macau, an on-year rise of more than one-fifth, but less than one-tenth came from outside of mainland China, Hong Kong or Taiwan, and most did not stay overnight.

"In the first half of this year, more than 10 percent of visitors were international. We hope we can gradually raise this, for over the long-term Macau ought to develop the international market," Helena Fernandes, deputy head of Macau's tourist office, told a news conference.

Tourism and gambling revenues make up more than half of Macau's GDP.

The push to look past China was partially sparked by new restrictions on mainlanders visiting Macau, introduced last month to try and slow the territory's galloping economy and over concerns too many Chinese officials were fritting money away in Macanese casinos.

"Obviously from a strategic point of view we feel this is a very good moment for us to not just pursue quantity but also to give a very good look at the quality of what we're providing," Fernandes said.

"Strategy-wise it's very important for us to go for diversity," she added. "Diversity in terms of product, and diversity in terms of the markets we are pursuing. So international markets will be very important in the future."

The number of visitors from Southeast Asia, especially Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia, has rocketed, and Macau is opening a tourist office in Indonesia to go after that market.

More flights to Macau by budget airlines such as Malaysia's Air Asia have helped drive this growth.

To cater to visitors who want more than just gambling, Macau is investing big on infrastructure and new buildings.

The Macau Science Centre, designed by renowned architect I.M. Pei, will feature a planetarium as well as conference facilities, and more than 70 new hotels will open in the next decade.

Macau's airport is slated for expansion, and a light rail system will eventually shuttle people around Macau.

But all of this has raised concerns the city is growing unsustainably fast, leading to traffic jams and social issues.

Not a problem, Fernandes said.

"With Macau's improvements -- in terms of the number of hotels we can offer, in terms of the transportation reorganization -- in actual fact the carrying capacity also changes over time," she said.

"Right now, we are still within the upper limits. Obviously, with the improvement of facilities that upper limit will hopefully be pushed even further."

Macau looks beyond China to fuel tourism boom

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