COVID: Macao loosens rules, but tourism still hasn’t recovered


Only a few tourists passed by the wavy black and white cobbled streets of Macao’s historic Senado Square on a recent weekday, and many shops were closed.

The game center on China’s south coast near Hong Kong has endured some of the world’s strictest anti-virus controls for nearly three years and an easing of border restrictions after China China withdrew its “COVID-free” strategy in early December that was supposed to boost its tourism-based economy.

But for now, China’s worst wave of infections to date is stopping the hoard of high-stakes gamblers that normally fill its casinos. According to police data, from December 23 to 27, the city averaged only 8,300 visitors per day. That’s just 68 percent of November levels. The scene improved on New Year’s Eve with 28,100 visitors entering the city that day, but that’s only 66% from a year ago. The daily average was 108,000 in 2019, before the pandemic.

Last week, China announced it would resume issuing tourist passports, potentially creating an influx of Chinese overseas, but also increasing competition for Macao.

Businesses are hoping the Lunar New Year holiday at the end of 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 only come here to stroll instead of shopping,” said Antony Chau, who sells roasted chestnuts on a square known for its European-style buildings that recall the history of a former Portuguese colony. “They’re just wandering around.”

When the coronavirus hit in 2020, the city’s gambling revenue dropped 80% to just $7.5 billion from a year earlier. In 2021, that number has recovered to $10.8 billion, but is still down 75% from its peak of $45 billion in 2013. Last year’s gambling revenue halved to 5. ,3 billion dollars.

Recovery can’t come too soon for souvenir shop owner Lee Hong-soi.

He said his business has been even quieter lately before immigration rules were relaxed. Because entry to Macao requires a negative PCR test result before departure, many people in mainland China are unable to visit because they are infected, he said. And now Macao and other parts of China are battling the outbreak.

“I am about to run out of energy after suffering for three years,” he said.

A few hundred meters away, visitors are enjoying an unusual level of quiet at the Ruins of Saint Paul, originally the 17th-century Mater Dei Church.

Rain Lee, 29, from Hong Kong with her husband, said she was glad she didn’t have to deal with the crowds, but was disappointed that many businesses had to close.

“Many stores have disappeared,” said Lee, a property manager. “I wish it could be like the pre-pandemic days when all the shops were open, with many people walking the streets. It was much more exciting back then.”

Beijing tourist Xylia Zhang, 36, making her first trip outside the mainland since the pandemic began, is looking forward to trying her luck in the casino.

“It was interesting because I could lose a few hundred dollars (in Chinese yuan) that I had budgeted for,” she said. “I’ve been to casinos in Seoul and Las Vegas. But I have never experienced that in Chinese-speaking places.”

The surge in cases in China has led some to travel to Macao for the mRNA-based Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which is not available on the mainland, China’s Caixin business news website reports. last month. Macao University Hospital, which provides the service, did not respond to an email request for comment and its phone rang unanswered on Friday.

But there is no sign of the influx of visitors, especially not in the casinos.

The gambling floors at the two major casinos were half empty on Wednesday, with only a few small groups of Chinese tourists sitting around the slot machines and dice tables, the dealers looking disheartened by the lack of activity.

Glenn McCartney, an associate professor of integrated tourism and resort management at the University of Macao, said it will take some time for Macao to regain its pre-pandemic form.

“(For) travel, you can’t snap your fingers and things start moving,” McCartney said.

But he said Macao’s tourism officials have held road shows in China during the pandemic, taking advantage of the city’s stunning location just across the border.

The Lunar New Year will give a sense of the potential for a longer-term tourism recovery, he said.

“That could be a hint.”


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