sexta-feira, 26 de junho de 2009

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Beijing travel curbs, swine flu blamed for Macau visitor slump

Fox Yi Hu
South China Morning Post
June 26, 2009

The number of mainlanders visiting Macau independently last month fell by half from a year ago, a drop officials attribute to Beijing's travel policies and the swine flu scare.

A total of 791,394 mainland residents visited the city in May, down 26.8 per cent from a year ago, the Statistics and Census Bureau says. Those arriving through the Individual Visit Scheme, which allows travel independent from tour groups, dropped by 50.9 per cent to 316,111.

The bureau said swine flu had affected the total number of visitors last month, which fell 20.4 per cent to 1.59 million, a 17-month low.

Andy Wu Keng-kuong, president of the Travel Industry Council of Macau, said the flu scare was the main reason behind the drop in visitors. He said the number this month would probably remain as low as for May.

But economist and gaming analyst Zeng Zhonglu of Macau Polytechnic Institute said the flu scare was only a minor factor compared with Beijing's travel curbs on mainlanders visiting the city. He added that the shortening of the seven-day May holiday to three days also affected appetite for travel.

"Last May, travel restrictions on individual visitors had not been tightened," Professor Zeng said.

Beijing began to tighten restrictions on mainlanders visiting Macau last June in an apparent effort to stop civil servants gambling away public money.

From June 1 last year, Guangdong residents were restricted to visiting Macau once a month instead of once a fortnight. The travel limit was further tightened to once every two months in July and three months in October.

Since September 1, travellers to Hong Kong have had to get a separate permit to visit Macau.

Guangdong is a major market for Macau's gaming industry, accounting for 70 to 80 per cent of all Individual Visit Scheme travellers.

Beijing never formally announced the travel curbs and the press could only gauge their intensity through information travel agents and travellers provided. The strictness with which the curbs were enforced also seemed to vary from city to city.

This year, the curbs have shown signs of letting up for ordinary Guangdong residents but many civil servants are finding it more difficult to visit.

A government employee in Guangzhou, who declined to be named, said his Macau visits had been limited to once a year and any visit must be approved by his department head. A newly retired civil servant in Shenzhen said that despite his retirement, he was not allowed to visit Macau even once a year.

But some residents in Guangzhou and Zhuhai, who did not work in the government, said they had been given visas about a month apart.

Despite the low number of May visitors, Macau's casino revenue last month seemed to have held up well at 8.8 billion patacas, according to the Portuguese news agency Lusa.

The monthly income figure represents a 10 per cent decline from a year ago. Professor Zeng said the sharp decline in tourist arrivals and the slight contraction in gaming revenue showed that mainland visitors were spending more money on gambling per trip.

"Given the difficulty of coming to Macau, visitors tend to gamble away more money to satisfy their desire for gambling," he said.

Professor Zeng said Macau's VIP gaming market was recovering from the blows of the travel curbs and a credit crunch for junket operators - middlemen who bring in high-rollers and often extend credit to them.

The recovery was partially due to adaptation by high-rollers and junket operators to the travel curbs, he said. "People have gradually adapted and found ways around the restrictions."

Professor Zeng added that the mainland's huge stimulus plan, which pumped liquidity into the market, may have made it easier for gamblers to borrow.

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