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Cablegate: Macau's Moratorium On New Casinos Less Than Meets

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RR RUEHCN RUEHGH RUEHVC
DE RUEHHK #0793/01 1220812
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
R 010812Z MAY 08
FM AMCONSUL HONG KONG
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 4767
INFO RUEHOO/CHINA POSTS COLLECTIVE
RUCPDOC/DEPT OF COMMERCE WASHDC
RHEHNSC/NSC WASHDC

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 03 HONG KONG 000793

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STATE FOR EAP/CM AND EEB/TPP/BTT

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: CH ECON ETRD MC EINV

SUBJECT: MACAU'S MORATORIUM ON NEW CASINOS LESS THAN MEETS
THE EYE


1. (U) Summary: Macau Chief Executive Edmund Ho, acting on
"instructions", announced an immediate moratorium on new
casino development in the Special Administrative Region (SAR)
on April 22. No new casino concessions will be granted in
the near future, no new leases for casinos will be approved,
and future land reclamation areas will be off limits to
gaming businesses. The government will not accept any
applications for additional gaming tables at existing
casinos. Local observers and existing gaming concession
holders welcomed the announcement, noting the need for Macau
to improve its existing infrastructure to cope with the
current rapid expansion of the tourism and gaming sector.
While overall gaming revenues continue to rise to record
levels, some casinos have begun to see slowing or even
declining receipts as tourist growth slows and new
competitors come on line. Ho's announcement will not affect
plans already approved by the government to add eleven
additional casinos in the next three years. Macau currently
has 29 casinos which took in a record 29.8 billion patacas
(apx. US$3.7 billion) in the first quarter of 2008. End
Summary.

2. (U) Comment: Explosive growth since opening the gaming
sector in 2002 has placed unavoidable strains on the people
and infrastructure in Macau. Most Macanese welcome the
economic expansion that has allowed per capita GDP to surpass
that of neighboring Hong Kong, but unquestionably that Macau
could use some time to adjust to its new status as a global
gaming and tourism capital. The government has plenty of
money but proposals to encourage students to stay in school,
resolve transportation bottlenecks, and meet increased demand
for health care will take time to implement. Despite Chief
Executive Ho's announcement, the pressure on Macau's
infrastructure is not going to abate any time soon. Eleven
new casinos, including several "mega-resorts" are slated for
completion by 2010. Tourist arrivals were virtually stagnant
in the first quarter of 2008, but the number of Chinese
tourists continued to increase, suggesting reported visa
restrictions are not having much effect. Macau risks
becoming solely dependent on tourism and gaming and could be
vulnerable to a sudden slowdown due to an economic, health or
security-related event. The "moratorium" will not slow
gaming growth in Macau in the near term and leaves unanswered
the question of how to diversify Macau's economy. End
Comment.

============================================= =====
Ho Announces Freeze on Additional Gaming Approvals
============================================= =====

3. (U) Macau Chief Executive Edmund Ho, in an April 22
question and answer session with the Macau Legislative
Assembly, announced an immediate freeze on approvals for all
new casino developments in Macau. Macau will not accept land
lease applications from gaming companies and will not expand
the number of gaming concessions from the current three
concessions and three sub-concessions "for a certain period
of time." Ho added that future land reclamation areas will
not be available to gaming operators. These decisions were
based on "instructions" from Chinese President Hu Jintao in
March, during a meeting on the margins of the National
People's Congress, said Ho. (Note: Macau has the highest
population density of any territory in the world, with almost
540,000 residents living on just 29.2 sq. km. Land
reclamation has long played an important role in Macau's
development; the territory of the SAR has grown by 22.6
percent since 1999 and Macau recently submitted reclamation
plans for five additional sites to Beijing for approval. End
Note)

4. (U) Ho told legislators that the Macau government is
currently conducting a study on the need to control the
number of casinos, gaming tables, slot machines, and junket
operators. He added that slot machines would be moved away
from residential areas and that applications from existing
gaming companies for additional gaming tables or gaming
facilities would be rejected. Licenses for new junket
promoters will not be approved, pending release of a study on
the proper supervision of the sector. The government will
also draft a bill to limit the maximum commissions allowed
for gambling promoters, said Ho.

============================================= ===
Moratorium Helps Revenues, Won't Slow Development
============================================= ===

5. (U) Although the timing was a surprise, observers and

HONG KONG 00000793 002 OF 003


existing casino operators in Macau were generally pleased
about Ho's announcement. Paul Tse, President of AmCham Macau
and CEO of property development company Ocean Gardens,
predicted the moratorium would be welcomed by Macau
residents. With 2007 GDP growth over 27% and 27 million
visitors last year, Macau's transport and social services
infrastructure is feeling the stress. The SAR needs time to
absorb the current expansion before encouraging additional
gaming sector growth, he said. (Note: Macau played host to
7.5 million tourists in the first quarter of 2008, almost
unchanged from Q4 2007. Chinese tourist arrivals increased
slightly, but were offset by fewer tourists from Hong Kong,
Taiwan and Southeast Asia. End Note) PBL/Melco's Crown
Casino Chief Financial Officer Keith Heise noted that the
moratorium isn't as stiff as it sounds. Macau currently has
29 casinos with over 4,300 gaming tables. The eleven new
casinos already under construction are not affected by the
freeze. Several of these will be very large, including
Crown's own City of Dreams, Galaxy's Cotai Mega Resort, the
Four Seasons and Sheraton Hotels, and the expansion of the
Venetian. These projects are all scheduled to come on line
no later than early 2010, bringing the total number of
casinos in Macau to forty.

============================
A Very Expensive Golf Course
============================

6. (U) University of Macau legal scholar and gaming
regulations expert Jorge Godinho also supported CE Ho's
announcement. He was not surprised that existing concession
holders would welcome the moratorium on new casinos, noting
that the share prices of the listed gaming companies active
in Macau had all risen on the news. Godinho suggested that
the current concession-holders may have been lobbying Ho to
announce a freeze on new concessions. U.S. gaming and
entertainment company Harrah's paid US$578 million for the
Oriente Golf course in Macau in September 2007, giving rise
to rumors that the government might consider allowing another
gaming concession. One Wall Street analyst reportedly
speculated at the time that Harrah's had either purchased a
"very expensive golf course or a very affordable piece of
prime casino-resort land in the world's largest gaming
market." Ho's reference to his conversation with Chinese
President Hu in his announcement short-circuited any
opposition to the freeze and illustrated just how closely
Beijing is watching events in Macau, said Godinho. Harrah's
responded to Ho's announcement with a press release
reaffirming their plans to run "a world-class golf course in
Macau."

============================================= =====
Is Competition Starting to Squeeze Casino Margins?
============================================= =====

7. (U) Casino receipts in Macau rose by 62 percent in the
first quarter of 2008, reaching a record 29.82 billion
patacas (over US$3.7 billion). Despite the record quarter,
some casinos have reportedly begun to see revenue growth slow
or even drop slightly. The Chairman of Hong Kong-based A-Max
Holdings, a junket operator listed on the Hong Kong Stock
Exchange, told the press that Ho's announcement reflected the
government's realization that the gaming sector is reaching
saturation in Macau. He added that some casinos are starting
to have problems attracting gamblers and predicted that some
may scale down or close in the near future. Heise said that
Crown saw a slight drop in the number of gamblers in March
2008, but attributed the slowdown to changes in Chinese visa
policy and seasonal factors rather than competition from
other casinos. He noted that the new casinos in Macau are
being built around tourist and entertainment amenities (Macau
will soon host three permanent Cirque du Soleil shows) that
invariably cut into gaming company profit margins. He
welcomed Ho's announcement that the MSAR would consider
limits on junket commissions; these commissions are another
dent in casino margins.

=====================================
Casinos Hoping for More Foreign Labor
=====================================

8. (U) With transportation and social services sectors are
already under significant strain, the eleven projects
currently underway may be too many, said Godinho. Lack of
human resources remains the biggest obstacle to Macau's
continued growth. Macanese worry that allowing foreign
workers into Macau will suppress wages, but casinos claim

HONG KONG 00000793 003 OF 003


additional foreign laborers, including Chinese, are urgently
needed to fill vacant positions. Macau's current
unemployment rate has fallen below 3 percent, suggesting the
casinos may have a point.

9. (SBU) Heise separately noted that Crown is having
difficulty filling skilled positions like accountants and
auditors in its current operations. Crown's human resources
managers prefer to hire a significant number of overseas
workers because their visa status makes them less vulnerable
to poaching by competitors. He lamented that current Macau
regulations make it difficult to recruit Chinese workers to
fill positions in the casino as dealers or security officers.
The Venetian has already established a dealer training
school in nearby Zhuhai, just across the border in Guangdong
Province, in preparation for the lifting of the prohibition
on non-Macanese dealers, said Heise.
Marut

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