MACAU - The Galaxy Macau, a multibillion-dollar casino resort complex, opened this week as Macau aims to draw a broader mix of visitors than the high-rolling mainland Chinese who have helped the city become the world's most lucrative gambling market.
To the crackle of firecrackers and the beat of a traditional Chinese lion dance, officials christened the Galaxy Entertainment Group's newest casino as a line of customers waiting to enter snaked around the building.
The casino, with 450 gambling tables and space for up to 1,500 slot machines, is the only one scheduled to open in the southern Chinese city this year.
The $1.9 billion complex also boasts a 40,000-square-foot (4,000-square-meter) wave pool and an artificial beach built with 350 tons of white sand. Guests can stay at three hotels, including one run by Singapore's Banyan Tree and another by Japan's Okura, with a total of 2,200 rooms.
Tropical and Japanese gardens, a Japanese tea pavilion, a Scottish-themed whiskey bar, 50 restaurants, a private members' club and a shopping street are other draws. A nine-screen 3-D movie theater is to open later this year.
The launch of Macau's 34th casino comes as the city seeks to diversify its economy away from gambling after years of searing growth that helped it overtake Las Vegas as the world's top casino market.
Macau's casino profits have been boosted by high-spending gamblers visiting from the Chinese mainland, many of whom travel on short junkets run by companies that lend them money to gamble and then collect debts once they return. The former Portuguese colony, once considered seedy and corrupt, now aims to develop cultural and entertainment attractions that can draw more middle-class families who will stay longer.
Macau's economy has boomed since a four-decade casino monopoly was broken up in 2002, opening the way for U.S. and Australian operators to enter the market with local partners. Monthly casino revenues so far in 2011 have grown by at least 33 percent, after surging by more than half last year to $23.5 billion.
The Las Vegas strip, in contrast, raked in $5.8 billion in revenue in 2010. Unlike Vegas, Macau has few attractions that don't involve gambling.
"We are happy to follow the Macau government's development strategy and build new momentum not driven by gaming culture," said Galaxy Chairman Lui Che-woo, a Hong Kong-based billionaire who built his fortune on property and construction.
The company expects a third of visitors to be high-rollers while the rest will be the so-called mass market, said Galaxy Vice Chairman Francis Lui, who is Lui Che-woo's son.
Galaxy is hoping to attract visitors from other Asian countries such as Japan who will stay at least two days, half a day longer than average, Francis Lui said. The average length of stay for Las Vegas visitors is 3.6 days.
Francis Lui added that the casino has capacity to add another 150 gambling tables, depending on demand.
Galaxy Entertainment operates five other casinos in Macau, a special administrative region of China and the only place in the country where casinos are legal. It competes with market leader SJM Holdings Ltd., as well as Las Vegas Sands Corp., Wynn Resorts, MGM Resorts and Melco Crown Entertainment Ltd.
Macau's leaders have taken steps to prevent unrestrained casino expansion and encourage the city's development as a tourist destination. The government last year announced it would withhold approval of new projects and cap the number of gambling tables until 2013.
Last year, more than 80 percent of its 25 million visitors were from Hong Kong and mainland China.
Analysts were skeptical about how big a role Galaxy will play in helping Macau diversify its economy.
"I don't know that this is going to move the needle for the market in a big way to change that visitor base dramatically," said Michael Paladino, a gaming analyst at Fitch Ratings. "I think it's largely going to remain a day trip market."