MACAU (Kyodo) The massive Venetian Macao casino resort is set to open in 2007, and there are hopes that this mega resort, which will feature one of the biggest convention centers in Asia, will lure Japanese who are doing business in China.

It is being built by Venetian Macao Ltd., a unit of U.S. casino giant Las Vegas Sands Corp., and is based on the same concept as the famous Venetian in Las Vegas.

“We see this as being very important in terms of a shop window either to sell to China or to buy from China,” Frank McFadden, chief operating officer of Venetian Macao, said in a recent interview.

McFadden expects Japanese businesspeople will come and attend conferences and exhibitions held at “Asia’s Las Vegas” due to its proximity to mainland China.

Macau, a special administrative region of China, is located on the southwestern side of the mouth of Xijiang River in Guangdong Province and is just a one-hour ferry ride from Hong Kong and Shenzhen.

To support the project, the government has been improving the transportation network by opening a new international airport, building a new ferry terminal, railway and expressway, and planning a new long bridge over the sea connecting to the mainland and Hong Kong, according to the company.

The Venetian Macao is positioned to be the big attraction on the Cotai Strip.

As part of an 800,000-sq.-meter development project on an artificial island, the resort replicates canals of Italy’s Venice and features 100,000 sq. meters of meeting and exhibition space, a 15,000-seat event center, an 1,800-seat theater and a massive spa, as well as a hotel, casino, shopping mall and restaurants.

Las Vegas Sands has already signed multiyear contracts for trade shows at the Venetian Macao, including the Asian Automotive Aftermarket Products Expo and the Asia Jewelry and Watch Show in 2008.

“We are changing Macau from a casino-only place to multichoice destination,” said Eric Chiu, vice president of Venetian Macao’s Asian development, in explaining the Cotai project.

“The key is not gaming,” Chiu said, adding the company wants to create a “destination resort” for commercial exhibitions modeled after Las Vegas in the United States.

Las Vegas Sands opened the Sands Macao in May 2004, the first foreign-operated casino in the former Portuguese colony since the liberalization of the gaming industry there after the return to the Chinese rule in December 1999.

The company’s second project is aimed at attracting more business- and leisure-oriented visitors, not just Chinese gamblers on day trips, who now dominate Macau, the only place in China where casinos are legal.

“The Venetian product is different from this product because its anchor is conferences and exhibitions,” said McFadden, comparing the current casino, which is principally for gaming, and the new resort under construction. “What we are doing is repositioning of Macau as a business/tourism center and conference center. The old preconception of Macau will change as the market changes.”

Yet, how many Japanese will visit remains to be seen.

Currently, Japanese account for less than 1 percent of total visitors to Macau, though the number is rising in line with overall growth. In the January-April period, the number of visitor arrivals totaled 7.12 million, up 19.6 percent from a year earlier, and 62,833 of them came from Japan, up 18.6 percent, according to government data.

Given the company’s estimates of 38 million visitor arrivals in 2010 based on assumed annual growth of 5 percent from 18.7 million in 2005, McFadden sounds optimistic also about Japanese visitors.

Fewer Japanese are coming to Macau now because there are no direct flights and no reasons for business tourists to come because there are no conferences, exhibitions or big conventions, McFadden said.

For tourists on long weekends, Macau airport is already discussing direct flights with two Japanese airlines, he noted, “So people can quickly come to spend weekends in Macau.”

“Once the products are here, then they feel more comfortable coming,” McFadden said.

Asked about Las Vegas Sands’ future business strategy in Asia, McFadden said, “We welcome the opportunity to expand in Asia,” depending on legal environment, licensing control and the level of tax.

The company recently won a bid to build Singapore’s first casino as part of an integrated resort also with a giant exhibition and convention center.

“We see the markets as being complementary, because you have a lot of places, a lot of exhibitions, where they don’t go to the same place,” McFadden said.

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