After a number of years of being sealed off for tourism, all of Asia has finally reopened for visitors without restrictions.
Once more, sunseekers are flocking to the paradisaical beaches of Bali, revelers can be seen enjoying the night markets and riotous club scene of Bangkok, and even China is once again allowing foreigners into its vast territory, yet little is said about the Asian Vegas.
This year, the lesser-known Macao (alternatively spelled Macau) is also gaining traction, and it’s time we analyzed why:
Tourists Are Flocking Back Into Macao
According to a recent study published by the Macao Government, in the first eight months of 2023, 17.6 million have visited Macao, marking a 363.1 percent year-on-year increase.
At this rate, Macao is one of the fastest-growing tourist destinations in Asia, though it is not often remembered nor talked about extensively on social media, unlike its immediate neighbors.
If you have never heard of Macao yourself, you should know that although it operates as a sovereign state, at least to a certain degree, it is an special administrative region (SAR) of China.
This means it is considered by the international community an integral part of the Chinese territory, but due to special accords, it operates under a separate system, being much more open and ‘capitalist’ than ‘mainland’, or traditional China.
Macao is one of two SARs in China, the other one being Hong Kong, and much like the latter, it’s a densely-populated city bounded by the South China Sea, with a population of over 680,000 and an area of 12.7 square miles.
It may be tiny, especially compared to its sister-SAR city, but it certainly does not suffer from a lack of cultural wealth or an abundance of points of interest.
A Former Portuguese Colony In China
Historically, Macao had been held as a colony by the Portuguese from the 16th century up until the nineties, leading to the development of a distinct identity and way of life that is distinct from that of other Chinese cities.
For instance, Chinese and Portuguese have equal status, and Macao is perhaps the only region in wider China where you will find Portuguese-inspired colonial architecture, Portuguese street names, and even the odd, older passerby who is conservational in both languages.
Granted, we would be reaching in classing Macao as bilingual when less than 3% of the population is able to speak Portuguese, but it doesn’t change the fact that it is one of the most inherently fascinating cities in the continent.
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The presence of Iberian whitewashed churches or colonial mansions in Brazil, Portugal’s most famous former colony, is not exactly unexpected, but it is nothing short of intriguing to find 17th-century Portuguese monastic complexes in a Chinese port.
What To See In Macao
The Senado Square (Portuguese for Senate Square) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site flanked on all four sides by Portuguese-era civic buildings, and were it not for the demographics and the overwhelming humidity, you would have a hard time convincing yourself you are not in Lisbon.
Prior to Macau’s return to China, the square was covered by Portuguese pavement and designated a pedestrian zone, which has helped ensure the preservation of the centuries-old square itself and its surrounding structures for future generations.
These include the impressive Hotel Central, the Holy House of Mercy, built as early as 1569, and the Leal Senado building, where the former Portuguese administration of Macau convened up until its dissolution in 1999.
Around the historic quarter of Macau, which is quite compact and walkable, other points of interest are the 17th-century Guia Lighthouse and perhaps the city’s most easily recognized landmark, the Baroque ruins of Saint Paul.
Saint Paul is one of the Seven Wonders of Portuguese Origin in the World, a list that features important Portuguese-built civic, defensive, or religious structures in former colonies.
The Portuguese-era gems are not Macao’s only noteworthy attractions.
It is, first and foremost, a Chinese city, and several folk temples are scattered around the city center, most notably the 19th-century revivalist Na Tcha Temple, and the oldest in Macao, A-Ma, completed in 1488.
Macao is best known, however, for its casino-based tourism, which has awarded it the title of ‘Asian Vegas’.
A Casino Industry 7x Larger Than Vegas
Macao’s gaming industry is considered the largest in the world, with an annual revenue of US$24 billion, which is about seven times larger than Vegas’s own.
As taxes from gambling venues are injected into Macao’s impressive welfare system and re-invested in the urban infrastructure as a whole, it is one of the most highly-developed city-states in Asia, up there with Hong Kong and Singapore.
Because casinos and their associated entertainment houses are illegal in the mainland (China), and even the relatively-free Hong Kong, Macao monopolizes the industry, drawing in millions of Chinese visitors from other territories, as well as foreigners.
Some of the best casino and luxury resorts in Macao are:
- The Galaxy Hotel, famous for its luxurious amenities and signature twin hotel towers
- The Venetian Macao, a perfect replica of Vegas’ Venetian, with its own lagoon and campanile
- The Four Seasons Hotel Macao Cotai Strip, an elegant luxurious enclave with an expansive swimming pool and traditionalist decor
- Studio City Macau, a palatial five-star casino resort and icon of the Macao skyline
- The Grand Lisboa Palace, a stately resort combining both indigenous and colonial traits, dubbed one of the best casino resorts in the city
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Is Macao Affordable?
With overnight rates for the Venetian starting at just US$160, which seems to be the asking price of a majority of Macanese resorts, it also makes Macao considerably less expensive for a two to three-day sejour than its American counterpart.
On average, hotel prices for a couple in Macao stand at US$227, or US$ 113.50 each.
According to BudgetYourTrip, tourists should budget a fairly reasonable US$146 per day for their Macao trip, though we will assume this estimation is for non-gamblers.
Macao may be home to an opulent, Westernized underworld of casino resorts, but this is still an indigenously-Chinese city where you can find night markets, an abundance of affordable eateries, and plenty of delicious Sino-Portuguese street food to appease the foodie in you.
Lisbon-style Pasteis de Belem in China? Sure, why not?
In terms of prices, you are not expected to spend more than US$21 on meals per day in Macao, meaning food is way less expensive than in Hong Kong ($33), being more in line with mainland China’s prices.
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In Beijing, for instance, tourists usually spend US$20 per day on food.
These are, of course, estimations, and it all boils down to your traveling style. The point is: the Asian Vegas can be a steal of a deal if you want it to be.
Macao Is More Open To Mainland China
As Macao is more open than mainland China, maintaining its own border and a capitalist system, similar to Hong Kong, it can feel a lot more ‘palatable’ to American and European visitors than Beijing or Shanghai.
In the mainland, most Western apps are blocked, and you may find it hard to communicate or access services due to the low level of English spoken by most locals, yet in Macao, they are much more used to foreign visitors, particularly daytrippers coming from neighboring Hong Kong.
Macao is a lot more tourist-friendly, and in many ways, it is China with a ‘Western’ flavor.
Additionally, most Westerners do not need visas to enter Macao, unlike in mainland China. Due to special treaties, Americans can visit the special administrative region for up to 30 days, most Europeans and Latin Americans for up to 90, and Brits get a whopping 6-month stay.
Macao’s main entry points are Macau International Airport, a major hub hosting flights from all over Asia, and Macau Port, linked by ferry to Hong Kong with a sailing duration of only one hour.
From America, the easiest way to reach Macao is first flying into Hong Kong and then taking the incredibly modern, rapid ferry.
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This article originally appeared on TravelOffPath.com