Not just casinos: Macao reimagines tourism post-pandemic

After closing for months due to the pandemic, China's gambling capital Macau has reopened with new offerings, including a zip line and a gin distillery.

Not just casinos: Macao reimagines tourism post-pandemic

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During the pandemic, Dan McAulay, like many of his peers, was furloughed from his job as a pilot.

He found himself with a lot of time on his hands, being based in Macao - a city that had one of the world's strictest approaches to the coronavirus pandemic.

McAulay and his wife, Rebeca Fellini, started learning how to distill alcohol as a lockdown hobby. And by the end of the nearly three years that Macao was a relative fortress, they had grown their pastime into a bona fide business- a gin brand called Owl Man, a play on the Chinese pronunciation of the city's name 'Ah Mahn.'

Now, McAulay is flying again with Air Macau and Fellini is managing the distillery's day-to-day business.

Even though their business was born during the lockdown, they, like so many other businesses around the city, are pinning their hopes on the return of tourism.

Was it a blessing in disguise?

Gambling is only legal in China in the special administrative region of Macao, which is an hour's ferry ride from Hong Kong.

It wasn't unusual to see a high-spending 'whale' helicopter in and out of the city for a single afternoon at the craps table before the pandemic.

The city's primary economy is the casinos and the businesses supporting them, from hotels to spas to high-end shops.

Macao, with only about 600,000 residents compared to seven million in Hong Kong, still manages to bring in six times as much revenue as Las Vegas in a typical year.

Before the pandemic, most of Macao's government revenue came from the gaming industry. Big players like Wynn, Venetian and MGM all have a significant presence in the city.

The outbreak of Covid-19 threw the city's primary source of income into a tailspin. Nearly three years of intermittent lockdowns and blocked travel from the mainland and Hong Kong had a devastating effect.

It also allowed for innovation.

"Gastronomy is one of the government's big pushes," explains McAulay, "because they realized they can't focus all their efforts on gaming and tourists from the mainland."

Being the only distillery in Macao has given us a strong start. The hotels and casinos are encouraged to support local food and beverage companies, which has worked out amazing for us.

He isn't the only entrepreneur to use the tourism slowdown to rethink his business model.

Asai owns several Portuguese restaurants and cafes around the territory. As a former Portuguese colony, Macao is known for food traditions like egg tarts, African chicken and bacalao (codfish fritters).

Asai wants visitors to know that there is still an active, thriving Portuguese community in Macao and that they are offering more than the usual favorites.

Egg custard tarts, or pasteis de natas in Portuguese, are a very popular souvenir from Macao, with long lines at establishments like Lord Stow's and Margaret's.

Pasteis de Chaves is a small, trendy-looking cafe. It sells egg tarts, but its name comes from the signature offering beef stuffed pastries. The beef stuffed pastries offer a savory complement to the sweet eggy ones.

Three Sardines is a romantic, dimly lit spot across the road specializing in petiscos, a Portuguese equivalent of tapas with small plates like fried octopus and grilled peppers.

Asai, who has been in Macao for 18 years and stayed through the pandemic, says that competition is high for Portuguese restaurants but many of them are localized twisted versions of Portuguese food. Asai says that they try to offer more traditional and unique experiences and that this is a niche that helped them survive the pandemic.

He is not the only local business owner looking outward for the first time in several years as tourists slowly trickle back to Macao.

Asai's restaurant group has received government support, like Owl Man, as Macao diversifies its food and drink scene.

He and head chef Pedro Almeida, for instance, worked with the Macau Government Tourist Office (MGTO) on a video to explain the origin of egg tarts and how they differ in Macao and Portugal.

The latest and greatestWhat's new and excitingThere's always something new to discoverNew and excitingThere's always something new to discover

It was clear that a lot had changed when the first international tourists began returning to Macao in February 2023.

The closure of many small neighborhood restaurants during lockdown has led to difficulty staffing up after so many workers left the city permanently.

New attractions have opened as well, with casinos trying to diversify their offerings to become more family-friendly.

The city's first-ever outdoor zip line, ZipCity, opened at Taipa's Lisboeta casino complex in January 2023. The timing couldn't have been better, as mainland Chinese tourists flooded the city during Lunar New Year a representative for the company says that ZipCity operated 'at 90% capacity' during that holiday week.

Ongoing construction projects were still completed despite the pandemic, if not necessarily on schedule.

In June 2020, popular Japanese immersive art experience TeamLab opened an outpost at the Venetian. In 2021, a new British-themed resort, The Londoner, opened complete with penthouse suites designed by David Beckham.

The ruins of St. Paul's Church, the city's most well-known landmark, have been reinvigorated by a new on-site VR experience that enables visitors to see what the church looked like during different historical periods.

The city is offering incentives to bring back tourists.

If people stay at least one night in a hotel after coming over via ferry from Hong Kong, they qualify for a buy-one-get-one free boat ticket. This incentive encourages people to stay longer, rather than just making it a day trip.

Whilst most businesses and vendors in Macao, including taxi drivers, accept Hong Kong dollars, very few of their counterparts in Hong Kong accept the Macanese pataca.

Macao's tourism authority also announced programs aimed at international travelers, including deals on package trips. These programs are intended to make Macao a more attractive destination for foreign visitors.

The ground looks lively.

Weekend ferries to Hong Kong have been selling out, and popular areas like Senado Square and the Guia Fortress, which is part of the city's UNESCO-listed historical center, are thronged with visitors.

This includes casinos too. Recently, on a mid-week visit, the tables at the MGM and Venetian casinos were full of both gamblers and gawkers.

Macao and Hong Kong both dropped their mask mandates on February 26 and March 5 respectively. However, many casino-goers still sported masks indoors once it became voluntary, perhaps due to the close quarters at blackjack tables.

Tourism is currently mostly regional.

The majority of visitors arriving in January 2023, according to data from Macao's tourism authority, were from mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, the Philippines and Indonesia.

In January 2019, 3.4 million tourists came to Macao, with the majority from mainland China. In January 2023, 1.4 million visited, the majority during the Lunar New Year holiday.

Air Macau has been steadily increasing its capacity to add more flights from Singapore and Taipei, two of Macao's biggest markets. More mainland China routes will return by March 26.

Low-cost Asian carriers, such as Cambodia Airways and Thai Vietjet, have also brought back their pre-pandemic air links.

"I think everyone expected tourism to rebound, but talking to all our friends in the hotels and casinos, they say their fourth-quarter predictions have rebounded faster than they anticipated," says McAulay, co-founder of Owl Man.

I think it's re-energizing.