From exuding outward messaging of hope, the tone has changed for Macau’s gaming operators in recent months.
On Melco Resorts and Entertainment’s 4Q21 earnings call in early March, Chairman and CEO Lawrence Ho was under no illusions as to the challenges facing the concessionaires in 2022 as Macau awaits permission from mainland China to open up its borders.
Asked his thoughts on when China might green-light the resumption of group visas, group tours and eVisas – all seen as vital factors in boosting visitation to the SAR – Ho said, “I think the Chinese policy is going to be very conservative this year with regards to opening up its borders, and even recently we’ve seen how certain provinces view Macau as being so close to Hong Kong and therefore the COVID outbreak in Hong Kong somehow would affect Macau.
“Honestly, I don’t have a lot of hope that group tours or eVisas are going to be normalized before the Hong Kong-China corridor is open, [which will allow] the Hong Kong-Macau corridor to open [too].”
The change in tune is significant. As recently as December, local media was reporting that Beijing had given final approval for the mainland to drop its hard border with Hong Kong, opening the door for fully vaccinated Hong Kong residents to resume quarantine-free travel to Guangdong Province and Macau. Hong Kong had even launched its own health code system, designed to align with the health code tracking systems of Macau and the mainland.
This was significant, not only because visitors from Hong Kong have traditionally contributed between 10% and 15% of Macau’s GGR but also because allowing travel between the two SARs was seen as a major step towards a further easing of border restrictions between Macau and its main visitor source – mainland China.
But an outbreak of COVID-19 in Hong Kong that has since seen cases soar above 50,000 per day has scuppered those plans, with China’s strict zero-COVID policy ensuring any plans of reopening are back to square one.
What does this mean? For one, it almost certainly gives President Xi Jinping even greater reason to stick with China’s current policy and resist calls to join the rest of the world in “learning to live with COVID”. This is doubly true because 2022 is a hugely important year for China. Aside from the recent Beijing Winter Olympics and annual “Two Sessions” meetings in March, this year will also be highlighted by the Hong Kong Chief Executive election on 8 May, the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover on 1 July and the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, expected to be held sometime in the northern autumn.
It is impossible to imagine Beijing risking any of these major events by opening its doors to a virus that it has, for the most part, managed to keep at bay. Good news, I suppose, for China’s most vulnerable but not so good for Macau, because evidence suggests those borders will remain firmly sealed until 2023.
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