By Muhammad Cohen
MACAU - As a tourism destination, Macau has two powerful selling points. It's truly a place where East meets West, a Chinese city under Portuguese rule for 450 years where cultures mingled and fusion cuisine was born. Since the mid-19th century, Macau has also been a haven for games of chance, and in 2006 it overtook Las Vegas as the world's most lucrative gambling destination.
Finding a way to get gaming to support preservation of historic and cultural sites has been part of the holy grail for Macau, where development has often meant sacrificing portions of the heritage that makes Macau unique.
Money is usually the biggest hurdle to preservation. Macau casinos have money, but they can use it to destroy heritage as
well as save it. Gaming market leader Sociedade de Jogos de Macau (NYSE:SJM) built Ponte 16 in Macau's Porto Interior (Inner Harbor) district in the midst of Macau's still-bustling but worn old port area, where Macau people live and work. If heritage and gambling don't sell you, there's Michael Jackson, too.
"SJM has been dedicated to promoting Macau's unique culture, which we believe is the engine for the city's continued development," SJM chief executive Ambrose So said. "Ponte 16 proudly serves as the anchor to the revitalization of this historic neighborhood, in accordance with the government's plan in the redevelopment of Macau's older urban districts."
SJM owns 51% of Ponte 16 and Hong Kong-listed Success Universe Group, which runs VIP gaming, cruise ships and travel services, owns 49% .
Sea, land links
The HK$3.1 billion (US$400 million) resort, whose first phase opened in 2008, is located on the waterfront, with rooms and its swimming pool overlooking the Pearl River and the mainland city of Zhuhai. Ferries from Hong Kong landed at Ponte 16 - Pier 16 in Portuguese - until the 1970s.
The resort preserves the former terminal and its clock tower, incorporating the tower into the exterior of its 408-room Sofitel Macau. Ponte 16 lies within the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage historic district, with most major historic attractions within a 15-minute walk of the resort.
Architect Mario Duarte Duque applauds the idea behind the project but decries its execution, based on Macau's urban history. The hotel lies at the end of a boulevard created by Macau governor Jose Carlos da Maia during his short but eventful 1916-1918 tenure.
"This street was cut to connect the Inner Harbor with the South Bay," Duque said. "The South Bay was the expatriate, Christian city, and the Inner Harbor was the Chinese city. They were back to back to each other and didn't relate. It was a political mission to connect waterfront to waterfront and community to community.
"When you looked at either end of the road, you could see water and sky. It was a unique feature of Macau's urban landscape. Even with reclamation of the South Bay, that was still preserved. But this building, Ponte 16, blocks it. It's a loss to the cityscape."
Architecturally, Duque wouldn't comment directly on Ponte 16, saying, "There are a lot of buildings in Macau that are not architecturally significant."
Delivering the package
Macau's gaming and heritage have traditionally operated independently of each other. The original casino area sprung up around the fringes of the commercial and civic centers of town. Around the casinos, there's little to suggest anything historic.
In the new Cotai resort district, on landfill joining Macau's outer islands, urban planners seem to have taken pains to separate rather than link Cotai to Old Taipa Village, a historic area with mansions, museums, temples and alleys alive with residents and restaurants. There's no direct bus service from Cotai to Macau's historic center.
But tourists want the whole Macau package, casinos and culture. Bus tours from the mainland bring tourists to the 16th century ruins of Saint Paul's Church before depositing them at Casino Lisboa, the Venetian Macao, or, for a patriotic touch, the newly minted Oceanus with an exterior shell recalling Beijing's Water Cube from the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympic Games.
Australians Linda and Leigh Dahl were planning their sightseeing day while sipping champagne with breakfast at top floor Club Sofitel in Ponte 16. They wanted to see Cotai's City of Dreams development, where Australian media mogul James Packer is a partner. "But we didn't want to stay on the strip," said Leigh, who supervises an electronics component factory in China.
"We liked the idea that this hotel was in the old town, and the area had some character," said Linda, who flew up from Canberra, met Leigh in Hong Kong, and ferried over to Macau. "This hotel had good reviews on the Internet."
TripAdvisor.com rates the five-star Sofitel Macau among the top 10 hotels in Macau, and weekday online rates run from US$160-$225.
The 1.3 million square foot complex includes the hotel and its Mansion block of 19 themed super suites for high rollers - or anyone else willing to shell out HK$12,500-$26,500 (US$1,600-$3,400) per night - a casino with 109 tables and 300 slot machines plus two VIP rooms, restaurants and bars. Phase III of the development will add a waterfront promenade and shopping. The downtown casino district is just a 15-minute walk away, though the traditional shophouses and decidedly local flavor of Porto Interior make it seem worlds away.
Although it's not a prime tourist destination anymore, Porto Interior remains busy as the city's main commercial port, with reminders of its former glory. Ferries still run to some parts of the mainland and sampans (traditional Chinese flat-bottomed wooden boats) cross the narrow channel to the mainland city of Zhuhai. Three well-known Portuguese and Macanese restaurants are nearby and, hidden off the main drag, the best chill-out bar in Macau. (The owner, a friend, insists on keeping the details unpublished.)
"The project brings an increasing number of visitors to the Inner Harbor area that has many other businesses looking to serve tourists," SJM's So said. The area is rich in authenticity that cultural tourists crave, but as in most other destination cities, aside from tourist-oriented businesses, residents and tourists move in separate orbits with few intersects.
"If it was adequately, properly planned, it would attract the tourist who is seeking an urban experience," architect Duque said. "If it was possible to retain its urbanistic value, it would be one of the most attractive areas in Macau."
Opened early this year, Ponte 16's multimedia MJ Gallery, showcasing items from the late superstar Michael Jackson's career, represents history to some visitors. Along with the sequined glove and socks that Jackson made famous, the gallery features videos of Jackson performing through the years.
Staff at the gallery, outfitted identically in tight black chinos, white shirts, black vests and black fedoras, best worn at a jaunty angle, insist that Jackson is popular in Asia, with fan clubs from across the region making pilgrimages to see the 40 artifacts on display. An MJ Cafe will open next to the gallery this month, and in October Ponte 16 will host an auction of memorabilia from Jackson and other celebrities.
Does the concept work? SJM reported that for 2009, Ponte 16's first full year of operation, the project contributed HK$94.3 million in revenue, but remained a net loss for the group. For the year, hotel occupancy was less than 50% , though it reached 70% in December as business picked up across Macau during the second half of the year. SJM has not yet released figures for the complex for this year, but a source said occupancy has remained near December levels.
It's a fair bet that guests choosing Ponte 16 for its surrounds are likely to spend less on gambling and other hotel offerings in favor of getting out to experience the rest of Macau. Moreover, the relatively isolated position and imposing architecture do not attract casual traffic, a situation the Phase III promenade could change.
Overall, SJM reported first-quarter profits of HK$760 million, a gain of 451% from a year earlier, attributable mainly to skyrocketing gaming revenue - up 74% to HK$12.7 billion. As long as the money keeps pouring in elsewhere, SJM can afford to underwrite the Ponte 16 experiment.
Macau Business magazine special correspondent and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen told America's story to the world as a US diplomat and is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, financial crisis, and cheap lingerie. Follow Muhammad Cohen's blog for more on the media and Asia, his adopted home.