[MACAU] Derek Chen and family spent their Golden Week holiday in the world's biggest gambling centre - and didn't place a single bet.
Mr Chen and his wife, from Guangdong province in southern China, didn't go near a gaming table during their four-day vacation in Macau last week. Instead, they entertained their 3-year-old son at the fun zone in Melco Crown Entertainment Ltd's Studio City, took in a magic show and rode on the resort's Ferris wheel.
"I was surprised when my friends suggested I take my son here to Macau," said Mr Chen, 30, whose past trips to the city tended to be one-night gambling excursions with his friends. "Macau is different now. It's become a place where we can stay for a few days, find good restaurants and the kid can enjoy a magic show."
Macau's about-face appeal to families instead of its traditional base of high-stakes gamblers is showing signs of paying off. The number of visitors from China rose 6.9 per cent to 970,000 during the National Day holiday from October 1 to 7 known as Golden Week. That's the most tourists from the country in at least 10 years.
Mainland vacationers came to the former Portuguese enclave even as China's slowing economy left many consumers cash-strapped and as the yuan weakens against the US dollar. Expansion in the world's second-largest economy may have slowed to 6.6 per cent in the third quarter, and the yuan fell the most in four months Monday.
"With the roll out of non-casino attractions, more non-gamblers will be attracted to these leisure places," said Catherine Lim, a retail analyst for Bloomberg Intelligence. "The 'one stop and you get it all for your family' concept definitely works for Chinese. The families like to visit shopping malls where there are restaurants and playgrounds for their children."
The increase in Golden Week visitors is slower than the growth two years ago, when Macau's casino industry came off a record year in gaming revenue. Yet it helps support the city's efforts to reinvent itself as it comes under pressure from China's central government to scale back from gambling.
China President Xi Jinping ordered Macau to diversify its economy when he first visited in December 2014, and Premier Li Keqiang, who's in town this week, reiterated Beijing's push for those efforts.
Mr Li will announce measures to promote and accelerate that effort, the broadcaster Teledifusao de Macau reported Monday.
Wynn Resorts Ltd's recently opened Wynn Palace features a US$100 million water fountain show and a gondola ride around it, while visitors flock to Las Vegas Sands Corp's Parisian with its half-size replica of the Eiffel Tower for selfies.
The Golden Week numbers are another positive sign for Macau after the casino industry posted a second month of higher gaming revenue in September. Macau, the only place in China where casinos are legal, saw gambling receipts plunge for 26 straight months amid Mr Xi's crackdown on corruption, which prompted high-stakes bettors to avoid the city.
"Based on our on-the-ground observations, Golden Week might very well have exceeded expectations from a gaming revenue perspective," said Grant Govertsen, a Macau-based analyst at Union Gaming Group LLC. "It feels that the growth rate seen in September has carried through to Golden Week, if not even better."
Still, Macau faces intensifying challenges from travel destinations in Asia and further afield, as countries court China's gamblers as well as its shoppers. South Korea and the Philippines have been opening new casinos targeting Chinese high-stakes players, while Singapore came up with its own version of Golden Week that offers retail discounts and free limousine rides.
The number of Chinese who travelled during the National Day holiday rose 13 per cent from a year ago to 593 million visitors, the China National Tourism Administration said on its website. Of those, agency-guided tourists leaving the country rose 12 per cent to 1.4 million.
Their top destinations included South Korea, Japan, Russia and Thailand.
"It remains to be seen whether Macau's visitor growth rate can be sustained," Ms Lim said.
"The post-Golden Week performance could be weak and the outbound travel trend has introduced more competition to Macau."