If all goes according to plan over the next 14 hours or so, flight TR905 will begin its take off roll along the single runway of MFM – Macau International Airport – at 7:55pm this evening.
That flight, one of three per week on the humble Scoot airline, will almost certainly take off to the north (as almost all flights out of Macau do), then shortly turn 180 degrees to the south, and begin its over three-hour journey to Singapore’s Changi airport. Singapore is now the epicenter of Asian air travel – having long eclipsed COVID-zero decimated Hong Kong. It also represents the main practical route out of Macau to the wider world.
Assuming all goes to plan, flight TR905 at 7:55pm this evening will represent my own salvation, my “getaway car,” my escape from the incarceration that has been Macau over the past 933 days since 23 February 2020. It was on that day I arrived from London via Zurich and Hong Kong, mere days before the proverbial door was slammed shut behind me courtesy of a little mishap known as the COVID-19 pandemic. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?
How Macau has changed in those 933 days.
In that time, I have barely left a tiny patch of just a few square kilometers – the longest continuous period in a single city in my entire life – including my childhood right back to birth. I haven’t even been able to go to Zhuhai, much less the pipedream of visiting Hong Kong. For someone who loves travel to the point of averaging one flight a week in 2019, it’s been quite the torment.
18 years of Macau
I first set foot in Macau in 2004, shortly after Sands Macao opened its doors. After living in Hong Kong for a few years and visiting Macau regularly, I finally took the plunge and relocated permanently in 2009, to make my home in what was then a wonderful melting pot of east-meets-west. I lived, I loved, I learned. I worked, I played. I even completed a master’s degree at the University of Macau. The casino gaming industry thrived, Macau became king of the world, we all know the story.
But, as the saying goes, all good things must come to an end. We wobbled in 2014, fell to our knees in 2015, but then dusted ourselves off and recovered through to 2019. Things were looking good until … well, again, we all know the story. There is no need to repeat it.
Through 2020 and 2021 the world suffered COVID – together. But in 2022 it is different. The rest of the world has moved on, recovered, started to put their lives, their businesses and their economies back together again. They talk of COVID-19 in the past tense. When Macau people reference their own pandemic plight, overseas friends and colleagues answer in a bewildered tone, “Are you guys still doing that?”
I run a business called “Inside Asian Gaming”, not “Inside Macau Gaming.” As long as Macau was the center of the Asian gaming world it made sense to be based in Macau, and to visit the rest of Asia and the world regularly. But Macau is no longer the center of Asian gaming. As explained in the cover story of the August issue of IAG, that center of gravity has now slipped away from Macau and is being picked up by other APAC jurisdictions like the Philippines, Singapore and Australia.
While IAG will remain a Macau company, our office will remain in Macau and our Macau-based staff will continue to do their work right here in Macau, much of the business of the Asian gaming industry is now outside Macau. While networks and relationships built up over the past three decades (and the past decade in particular) stood IAG in good stead through 2020 and 2021, that is simply no longer the case. In order to keep our business afloat it’s imperative for me visit a host of countries as quickly as possible. To name just a few: the Philippines, Singapore, Australia, Malaysia, Cambodia, Japan, Thailand, Korea, Vietnam, the US and the UK. I hope to visit all of them and more over the next 12 months.
It is with terribly mixed emotions I leave Macau, on what I am describing to anyone who asks as “a very, very long business trip.” On the one hand I leave the place I have grown to love over the past 13 years and leave our wonderful hard working IAG team behind to “hold the fort.” But on the other hand, I simply must “venture out from the cave” to “hunt the mammoth” given the lack of gaming industry business in Macau. There are some interesting non-gaming opportunities in Macau, particularly in the CSR space, and our parent company O MEDIA is pursuing them. But for IAG, the well is running very dry in the SAR.
It would be remiss of me not to mention the persistent and disquieting brain drain occurring right now in Macau, for in departing Macau I am certainly not the lone ranger. Over the past six months there has been a veritable cavalcade of goodbye drinks, parties, farewells and messages announcing departures from Macau, mainly of foreigners and even quite a few Macau people lucky enough to have links to countries outside Macau.
I put this brain drain down to three quite obvious reasons: the relentless COVID-zero policy of the Macau and central governments with no end in sight, the rising opportunities for skilled industry professionals in other parts of the world, and the general emotional malaise hanging over Macau. Awfully, that malaise is expressing itself in Macau through increased suicide rates, heightened prevalence of domestic violence and all manner of mental health issues.
The situation is even worse for foreigners and the more “worldly” locals, who are coming to the realization that Macau will likely never return to its former economic glory, even post COVID-zero. There is also – and this is a very touchy subject, but since when have I shied away from touchy subjects – a quite obvious undercurrent of anti-foreigner sentiment in Macau. Some would even call it xenophobia.
For just one piece of evidence of this sentiment, one need merely look at the statistics on new residency applications in Macau. In the 2021 year the Macao Trade and Investment Promotion Institute (IPIM) processed 33 such applications, rejecting 32 of them! In a place boasting a population of around 677,000 (down by around 20,000 since the start of the pandemic, mostly through foreign workers losing their jobs), just a single person had their residency application approved. For 2022 Q1, a mere five applications were processed – with all five being rejected. Statistics are only available for the first quarter of this year, despite Q2 finishing over 10 weeks ago. It seems it takes quite some time to count to a single digit number.
It was just last month that Macau lawmakers considered a bill to attract “internationally recognized, high-quality and highly qualified personnel and senior professionals” to Macau. But talk is cheap. I would contend that actions speak louder than words.
Will I be back?
Absolutely. As referenced above, this is merely a “very, very long business trip,” not a complete departure. Officially, I remain based in Macau, as does IAG. But I suspect it may be more than a few months on the road given the many destinations around Asia and the world which must be visited to reconnect with a host of senior industry executives who haven’t had an in-person meeting with IAG for almost three years. One can only do so much by zoom, and ours is an industry built on relationships and human connections that can only really be cemented in person.
To those of you outside Macau, I’m excited to be heading your way and I’ll see you soon.
For those inside Macau, I guess it’s zoom meetings for the foreseeable future, and I will leave you with those beautiful words sung by Dame Vera Lynn, over 80 years ago:
We’ll meet again,
Don’t know where, don’t know when,
But I know we’ll meet again,
Some sunny day.