MACAO — When Macao's civic leaders announced plans last year to break up a long-standing gambling monopoly and invite bids for three new casino operating licenses, it was the first step toward a big dream.
Their vision was simple but ambitious: Transform this sleepy, slightly seedy gambling enclave into a glitzy gaming, convention and tourist center--a Las Vegas East, an Asian Atlantic City.
Macao's proximity to a huge potential market of Chinese gamblers and the fact that most of the 10 million visitors who came last year headed straight to the casinos made interest intense.
A special government commission sifted through 18 proposals, including ones from Donald Trump, MGM Mirage Inc. and a Monte Carlo syndicate, before deciding in February on two of the biggest names on the Las Vegas gaming scene: Steve Wynn and Sheldon Adelson.
The third license went to the holder of Macao's existing gambling monopoly, a flamboyant 80-year-old named Stanley Ho. A larger-than-life character, Ho has been married four times, has 17 children, a personal fortune in the billions and a stake in just about everything of real value in Macao.
The selection has set up a classic battle between total opposites for what could become one of the world's biggest gambling markets.
On one side are a pair of experienced outsiders with impressive track records of taking gambling mainstream. One Las Vegas casino executive who knows both men described them as "two of the biggest independent tigers in the world." On the other side is the ultimate insider, a Chinese businessman whose knowledge and control of the local scene give him enormous power.
"I don't see how anyone can start a gambling business here without dealing with Stanley," said longtime resident Warren Rooke, a local businessman.
Wynn discovered that quickly enough. As the American started negotiating for a prime spot of land to erect a $500-million resort, he found himself across the table from the man who controlled it: Stanley Ho.
For all involved in Macao's transformation, the stakes are high.
Macao, one of Europe's first colonial outposts in Asia, was ruled by Portugal for more than four centuries until, like its bigger neighbor Hong Kong, it reverted to Chinese rule 21/2 years ago. Today, the wealth of China's newly rich is nowhere more visible than around Macao's gambling tables. For those coming on organized tours, the smallest gambling chip costs $12; the largest, $12,500.
"It's a transforming moment in Macao's history," Wynn said in a telephone interview from Las Vegas. "We're going to have a helluva place there."
Adelson was said to be unable to comment for this article because of Securities and Exchange Commission rules that block public comment during the refinancing period of his Las Vegas casino, the Venetian.
For Ho, who at first fought the planned changes but now talks of leading them, the battle brings genuine competition for the first time since he purchased Macao's gambling monopoly 40 years ago. It's been a lucrative business ever since.
Mainly through his principal holding company, best known by its Portuguese initials STDM (Sociedade de Turismo e Diversoes de Macao), Ho today controls all 11 of Macao's casinos, its five-star hotels, a major bank, the horse track, the dog track and a lucrative online betting service. His money built Macao's new 1,100-foot-high observation tower and its convention center. He is the largest shareholder in the region's airline, Air Macao, as well as the new airport. He owns the high-speed ferry service and a helicopter link with Hong Kong that together bring the majority of Macao's visitors.
Collectively, taxes from Ho's business interests account for about 60% of Macao's annual government revenues.
For Macao, the dream isn't so much about survival as it is ending an era. The move represents a fundamental shift for a quiet backwater that lost its role as a main trading gateway to China well over a century ago to Hong Kong. Macao has lived comfortably since then off what one local dubbed "the three Gs"--gambling, graft and girls.
Although the stakes in Ho's casinos are high, the slightly rough, hard-edged ambience inside them is not.
"It's like being in a Greyhound bus station," said Rooke.
Like Hong Kong, Macao enjoys the status of a special administrative region within China and a similar quasi-autonomy from Beijing. Its population of 450,000--one-fifteenth that of Hong Kong--lives amid the rolling hills of a small peninsula and two tiny islands that add up to just over 9 square miles.
The main architect of Macao's vision for the future is its dynamic, 47-year-old top political figure, Chief Executive Edmund Ho, a Canadian-educated son of a respected local community leader. He is no relation to Stanley Ho.