Macau's leader warns of over reliance on gaming industry in wake of COVID-19

Reuters

Posted at Apr 20 2020 05:24 PM

Pedestrians wearing face masks walk down the street, with a backdrop of the Grand Lisboa casino, following an outbreak of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Macau, China March 24, 2020. Choi Chi Chio, Reuters/File

HONG KONG - Macau's leader Ho Iat Seng said on Monday that the world's biggest gambling hub was too dependent on the casino industry, warning that the Chinese territory was facing acute challenges as it emerges from the coronavirus outbreak.

Making his 2020 policy address, Ho said the focus this year would be on dealing with the epidemic, maintaining economic stability and protecting the livelihood of citizens in the special administrative region. 

"We should be soberly aware of the problems and challenges facing the development of Macau. Some structural and deep seated problems are beginning to emerge and affect the sustainable development of the social economy."

Ho said that the coronavirus had "fully exposed the vulnerability and huge risks of Macau economy’s over reliance on gaming tourism."

The government will spend over 50 billion patacas ($6.27 billion) in response to the epidemic. Macau has had 45 cases of COVID-19 so far.

Although Macau's casinos have reopened after a two-week suspension in February, revenues have plummeted between 80-90 percent, hit by curbs and health regulations.

The former Portuguese colony has banned entry for visitors from mainland China, neighboring Hong Kong and Taiwan who have traveled overseas in the previous 14 days. Visitors from the greater China region make up more than 90 percent of its tourists.

The government gets more than 80 percent of tax revenues from the gaming industry, which employs about three-quarters of the territory's 600,000 population, either directly or indirectly.

Ho said previous governments had made efforts to promote diversified economic development over the years but results had "not been obvious".

The cultural and creative industries that the government has committed to promote, account for less than 1 percent of GDP compared to the proportion of gaming which is over 50 percent, he said.

"This epidemic has once again exposed problems and risks of Macau’s economic structure," Ho said stating that far more needs to be done to diversify in order for Macau to maintain economic stability.

Born in Macau and the sole candidate approved to run for leadership, Ho was sworn in on Dec. 20 after being selected by a 400-member pro-Beijing committee last year.

He has no ties to the casino industry, in contrast to previous leaders, and his new cabinet will play a key role in determining what will happen to the 6 casino operators when their licenses expire in 2022.