MACAU, China -- From the flashing lights of the MGM, Venetian and Wynn, it might seem like you're in Las Vegas. But thousands of miles away off of the southeastern coast of China, Macau is Asia's premier gambling destination.
In fact, Macau passed Las Vegas in gambling revenues last year, so it's arguably the premier gambling location in the world.
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Macau, once a Portuguese colony, has had a gambling culture since it opened its first casino in 1847. Harold Bruning, Managing Director of the Macau Post, says that casinos have a strong history in Macau.
"Casinos are actually part of Macau's cultural heritage," he told CBN News. "You can't relate to Macau without casinos. You can't imagine Las Vegas or Monte Carlo without casinos as well. It's part of Macau's identity and heritage."
Three-Quarters of the Economy
Today gambling revenues comprise a staggering 70 percent of Macau's total economy. David Green is the Gaming Director for PricewaterhouseCoopers. He's not surprised by the industry's success.
"It was inevitable, I think, that this would always take off," Green explained. "There was always an undersupply in the market. Someone asked me some years ago, 'How big is the macau market?' I said I had no idea because up to this point, no one has ever supplied it properly."
"Now we do have supply and we do have significant amounts of supply coming into the market," he continued. "I think it will continue to grow. My expectation is that this year it will actually be larger than the state of Nevada."
Today Macau is one of China's two Special Administrative Regions, which means that it is technically part of Mainland China, but has different laws.
One Goal: Hit the Jackpot
Gambling is officially banned in Mainland China, but is encouraged in Macau, so millions of Chinese flood through the gates at the border crossing -- 12 million to be exact in the last 12 months.
Many come to see some of the impressive casinos, like the Venetian Macao.
Naia, a college student from Taiwan, was visiting the casino to shop and gamble. She said the casino, "is very big and different. I can't see this kind of hotel in China or in Taiwan. It's very special. Special for me."
Now the third largest building in the world, the Venetian Macao is one of the most popular destinations. In its first six months of operation, it welcomed 10 million guests from around the world. Some come to gamble, some to shop, and others just come to ride a gondola on one of the two venetian canals.
One business traveler from Malaysia said, "This is huge. It's huge! I've just walked around and it took me a while. I'm pretty impressed."
But the bulk of Macau's visitors have one goal in mind: to hit the jackpot.
"They're not here to be entertained," Green explained. "It's nice if they're in good circumstances, a nice ambiance to what they're doing, but they create their own interaction. They create their own dynamism at the table." he said. "So, in a sense they make their own adventure, and they don't come with other expectations, other than I'm gonna get lucky?
John Birkeland has been a missionary to Macau for nearly 30 years. He says many gamblers will continue to play, no matter the cost.
"In Las Vegas, people will go and they'll just play - win or lose - then they'll be gone, " he told CBN News. "But here they'll take their whole paycheck. And if they lose they just go and take all of the money out of their savings account, and then they lose that then they'll get the money from a loan shark. But here they are gamblers. . .hardcore gamblers," Birkeland explained.
Casino Jobs With No Future
Many of these hard core gamblers have brought billions of dollars to Macau, but the influx of tourists and casino growth has also brought its own set of problems.
"There are lots of problems," Bruning said. "Problems of young people who prefer work in casinos and aren't looking for other job opportunities right now because casino jobs are very well-paid."
Green warns those well-paying jobs may have no future.
"If you can earn $2,000 U.S. a month dealing cards, and your expectation going to tertiary is that you have no income for three years. It's pretty much a known what you're going to do," he said. "The problem is the people who deal cards may have no career progression ahead of them."
Despite these challenges, many people here say the recent casino boom has been positive for society by creating more jobs and government revenue.
One local at the China-Macau border says the new influx of Western hotels and casinos is "a good thing" because "it gives more opportunities to the Macau people."
"The living standard we enjoy in Macau is not only one of the highest in Asia but also in the world, and it's impossible without the gaming industry," Bruning said. "The gaming industry is very labor-intensive, and it offers many people well-paying jobs. Macau people have a good life, because people come to the casino to play the table."
Despite the social problems gambling can bring, millions of gamblers are certain to keep pumping billions into Macau's economy. And that makes the continued success of its casino industry a sure bet.