MACAU (AP) — In a scene from the James Bond movie "Skyfall," the British superspy arrives in Macau aboard a small raft that glides under an arched bridge, past hundreds of floating paper lanterns and through an illuminated dragon head to reach a casino.
When I made the trip to the tiny Chinese gambling mecca at the height of the Lunar New Year holiday on Monday, it was decidedly less glamorous.
I joined crowds of fellow travelers, mostly from mainland China, cramming into an aging ferry terminal in Hong Kong to board a hydrofoil ferry for the hour-long trip. Elsewhere, tens of thousands jammed border checkpoints with mainland China.
The holiday, which began Friday, is the busiest time of year for the former Portuguese colony, which Beijing regained control of in 1999 and is the only place in China where casinos are legal.
Celebrations include fireworks, lion dances and parades but the main draws are the 35 casinos that have made Macau the world's biggest gambling market. While tens of millions of mainland Chinese visit Macau annually, numbers surge during the holiday, often referred to as the world's biggest migration, when Chinese believe their luck at the baccarat tables is strongest. The result is extreme congestion on many stops on the tourist trail in this city of just 30 square kilometers, leaving infrastructure straining and local residents simmering.
I've visited Macau dozens of times over the past few years from my base in Hong Kong but have avoided going during the Lunar New Year holiday. This year I decided to brave the hordes of Chinese gamblers to see in the Year of the Horse.
"From an auspicious perspective this is the time of the year to come here to win," said Chris Wieners, managing director of Hogo Marketing, which works with casinos. He also runs another business bringing tourists to town for big events. "The feeling is almost like they can't lose, you have to win."
He cautioned that when visiting Macau during the holiday, there are "more cons than pros:" travel is a "nightmare," prices are inflated and hotels are full.
Authorities in Macau, population 598,000, were expecting 2.6 million visitors over the weeklong holiday period, according to local broadcaster TDM.
The influx is part of a broader tide of visitors drawn by the breakneck expansion of Macau's casino industry over the past decade. About 29 million people visited Macau last year, most from mainland China, and their gambling helped the city rake in $45 billion in casino revenue last year. That's about seven times the amount on the Las Vegas Strip and more even than the total earned by all 12,042 casinos in the U.S.
Foreign operators including Sands China, the Asian arm of U.S. billionaire Sheldon Adelson's casino company, are spending billions to build a slew of new megaresorts in Cotai, reclaimed swampland between two islands that's Asia's version of the Las Vegas Strip.