Billionaire Stanley Ho opens new casino in booming Macau

MACAU - Billionaire gambling king Stanley Ho celebrated the long-awaited opening Sunday of his Grand Lisboa casino _ a gleaming gold complex that is Ho’s biggest response to American rivals who have stormed into Macau and seized big chunks of the gaming market.

By (AP)

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Published: Sun 11 Feb 2007, 4:56 PM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 9:54 PM

Ho unveiled his latest casino _ shaped like a giant lotus flower _ just days after it was announced that Macau edged out the Las Vegas Strip as the world’s most lucrative gambling center.

The 85-year-old Ho, who has 17 casinos in Macau, enjoyed a four-decade monopoly on gambling here until the government in 2002 opened up the market. Ho now competes with American casino titans like Sheldon Adelson, Stephen Wynn and MGM Mirage Inc.

Ho’s casinos have a reputation for being smoky, worn-out gambling dens with grumpy service. Industry experts will be looking closely at the HK$3 billion (US$384 million; Ð295 million) Grand Lisboa _ whose opening was delayed for weeks _ for signs that this is a new start for Ho.

The tycoon acknowleged Sunday that his market share has slipped from 100 percent during the monopoly years to 63 percent in 2006. But he said 63 percent was really good’ considering the increased competition.

Ho has accused the Americans of unfair competition, like poaching his staff and stealing away customers. He complained again on Sunday but declined to name names.

So far, the competition, except for a few cases, has been fair and I’m satisfied,’ he said.

The 52-storey Grand Lisboa hotel casino has a sparkly round base _ a design inspired by Faberge eggs, Ho’s company said. The tower is shaped like the long plumes from a Brazilian showgirl’s headdress, the company said.

The casino features five floors with more than 240 tables and 484 slot machines. The first floor is smoke free _ an obvious appeal to his smoke-sensitive critics.

The 430-room hotel is scheduled to open later this year. Its lobby will sparkle with 580,000 Swarovski crystals, gold plated leaves and crystal balls, the company said.

Despite the dazzling new casino, analysts say that Ho’s company _ Sociedade de Jogos de Macau, or SJM _ will continue losing business.

SJM’s market share has no where to go but down,’ JPMorgan said in a report.

The problem is that Ho is facing too much new competition in Macau _ a peninsula and two islands off China’s southeastern coast. Several other massive casino resort projects.

Later this year, American billionaire Adelson plans to open his 3,000-suite Venetian Macao, billed as the largest hotel-casino in the world. The complex and many others are being built on reclaimed land between two islands called the Cotai Strip.

Adelson has said that when the Cotai Strip opens, most of the casinos on the peninsula _ where Ho’s Grand Lisboa is located _ will be toast.

When the entire Cotai Strip is open, the competitive battle will be finished,’ Adelson told The Associated Press in an interview last year.

But others argue that Macau’s casino business will not be a zero-sum game. One of the most popular sayings in the city is that when the water rises, all the boats go up with it. Although Ho’s casinos won’t be as dominant as they once were, they’ll still make money, some say.

Stanley’s casinos will still fulfill a certain sector of the gambling community. I think he’ll obviously come up with newer and better casinos, like the Grand Lisboa,’ said Rob Hart of Morgan Stanley in Hong Kong.

Hart noted that Ho is still the largest owner of land in Macau.

So while he might lose some gaming revenue,’ he said, the rest of his land bank portfolio is worth a huge amount. The land costs are going up in Macau, so he’s worth more and more.’

Last week, officials in Las Vegas said Macau edged out the Las Vegas Strip in revenue in 2006, raking in US$6.95 billion. The Las Vegas Strip’s US$6.69 billion was a record, but not enough to stay ahead of Macau _ the only place in China with legalized casino gambling.

Losing the gaming monopoly might have been one of the best things to happen to Ho. China announced that the monopoly would end just a day after the former Portuguese enclave returned to Chinese rule in 1999.

The last years of Portuguese rule were violent as criminal gangs _ or triads _ waged turf wars. Bombings and drive-by shootings were common and many tourists did not dare to visit Macau. The place was a sleazy attraction for daytripping gamblers who also indulged in prostitution in the city’s many saunas and massage parlors.

It seemed that Ho couldn’t turn around the market on his own. China’s leadership also wanted Macau to expand its portfolio to include upscale shopping malls, resorts and convention centers. So the government opened the market to the Las Vegas companies who helped transform that city into one of the world’s most successful tourist hotspots.

Ho said Sunday that Macau was a better place now.

You see more and more improvement in Macau, thanks to fair competition,’ he said.

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