Big Las Vegas casinos learned long ago to cater to every whim of Asian high rollers who think nothing of jetting in and dropping a million dollars or so

Now they are eager for more, preparing to open up right on the doorstep of communist China, home to more than a billion people and some of the world’s most passionate gamblers.

U.S. casino moguls Steve Wynn and Sheldon Adelson won two of three casino licenses offered at a recent auction and have pledged more than a billion dollars to bring some Las Vegas glitz to the tawdry territory of Macau, on China’s southern coast.

For investors such as Wynn and Adelson, Macau’s attraction cannot be overstated.

While the hundreds of casinos in the state of Nevada grossed combined gaming revenue of $9.5 billion in 2001, Macau’s 11 gambling halls took in a mind-blowing $2.5 billion.

“China, more and more so, is becoming a very, very important market,” said Allan Zeman, a close associate of Wynn, and one of the biggest landlords in Lan Kwai Fong, Hong Kong’s premier entertainment street.

U.S. casinos woke up to Asia’s gambling mania in the 1970s when Japanese businessmen arrived with suitcases full of money. But when Japan’s economy started going downhill, the wealthy Chinese diaspora became a force to be reckoned with.

Tiny Macau has long been a magnet for gamblers from China and nearby Hong Kong where casinos are illegal. Though the former Portuguese enclave returned to China in 1999, it was allowed to keep its freewheeling ways for 50 years.

Billions are gambled and lost in the territory every year and industry sources say that is just the tip of the iceberg.

“China’s underground gambling market is estimated at $362.5 billion a year. Even if just 2 percent comes to Macau, it would be enormous,” said David Chow, gaming expert and Macau legislator.


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