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Macau • The southern Chinese casino gambling powerhouse of Macau is getting a French twist.
U.S. billionaire Sheldon Adelson threw open the doors Tuesday evening to the French-themed Parisian Macao, the mogul's fifth property in the former Portuguese colony.
The $2.9 billion casino resort is drenched in Francophone icons, including replicas of 20 famous Paris landmarks, the biggest of which is a half-size replica of the Eiffel Tower. The faux monument offers visitors panoramic views of the Cotai Strip, Macau's version of the Las Vegas Strip built on reclaimed land between two islands.
The Parisian, operated by the Chinese unit of Adelson's Las Vegas Sands Corp., is the second American-owned resort to launch in Macau in less than a month, following the mid-August opening of Steve Wynn's $4.2 billion Wynn Palace.
For the launch, Sands enlisted Belgian soul singer Lara Fabian to perform. French actress Sophie Marceau was hired for the advertising campaign.
The opening comes just as the extended downturn in Macau's gambling revenues shows signs of bottoming out. Casino revenues rose 1.1 percent in August, the first monthly expansion after 26 straight months of declining growth.
"We are optimistic that we have hit the bottom" in the monthly decline of gross gambling revenues, Sands CEO Adelson said at a news conference ahead of the official opening, at the auspicious, by Chinese standards, local time of 8:18 p.m. eights being a symbol of getting rich.
"Now, is it sustainable for a long time to come? I can't answer that question, but based upon the pre-bookings we have, based upon the convention bookings we have, I think we have essentially hit the bottom," Adelson said.
Macau, a tiny enclave near Hong Kong, is the only place in China where casinos are legal.
After years of supercharged growth that transformed Macau into the world's top casino gambling market, earnings have slowed as China's economy decelerates to its weakest pace in a quarter century and President Xi Jinping cracks down on corruption, crimping lavish spending by mainland Chinese high-rollers. Still, with annual gambling revenues last year of $29 billion, its market is about four times bigger than the Las Vegas Strip's.
Thousands of people, many from mainland China, poured into the resort after the opening ceremony.
"Beautiful" said a businessman from central Hubei province surnamed Lee as he gazed around the ornately decorated lobby. The 48-year-old, who declined to give his full name, said he planned to gamble up to 3,000 yuan ($450). He added that "Macau gambling is unsustainable because of central government corruption and the overall economic slide."
The Parisian debuts with about 1,600 slot machines and 410 gambling tables, including 310 brought over from other Sands resorts and 100 more "new to market" tables recently approved by Macau's gambling regulator, which also granted permission to add 50 more new tables over the next two years.
Attractions include street performances by mimes, cancan dancers and accordion players, and a shopping mall evoking famed Paris streets such as the Avenue des Champs-Elysees, Place Vendome and Rue de Faubourg Saint-Honore.
Copies of other famed landmarks from the City of Light include a scaled-down version of the Arc de Triomphe de l'Etoile, a neoclassical arch that sits atop a World War I memorial in Paris, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The Sands version has a 12-meter (40-foot) -tall digital billboard on top.
The Parisian's faux Eiffel Tower is made out of steel from Shanghai, unlike the original's wrought iron. It's covered with 6,600 LED lights to be used for nighttime light shows.
Authorities want the city's six casino operators to diversify away from reliance on high-spending visitors by adding more family-friendly attractions to their new resorts, to help raise Macau's profile as an Asian tourist destination. The emphasis on mass market attractions also reflects Beijing's fears over capital flight via Macau, where middlemen known as junket operators help skirt China's capital controls by lending money to wealthy visitors from the mainland.
Macau is unlikely to see a return to the spectacular expansion of previous years because the junket market, which at one point accounted for as much as two-thirds of total gambling revenue, has shrunk dramatically, falling to about half. Competition from other emerging Asian gambling locations such as Saipan and Cambodia is also weighing on the market as rivals try to poach some junket business from Macau.
"I can't tell you where that's going to go, but the mass market will always be here," Adelson said.
With the completion of the Parisian, Sands has finished developing all its land in Macau, bringing its total investment in the city to between $13 billion and $14 billion. The company will now focus on looking at opportunities elsewhere in the region to build new casino resorts, Adelson said.
"There doesn't seem to be too much more growth here," he said. "We are aggressively and continuously, let me call it lobbying for other locations throughout the Asia-Pacific countries," including Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and Thailand.