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Holiday Charm

Mon, 17th Jan 2011
Direct flights fuel boom in Japanese tourists to Macao. (January 2011)

As he savoured his grilled cod and red wine in one of Macao's best-known Portuguese restaurants, Hiroshi Goryo reflected on the citys future. It should become the music and show capital of Asia, attracting people from Korea to Thailand. Asia has no such centre and Macao should be the one.

On his fifth visit to Macao, Goryo knows what he is talking about. He is the chief operating officer of the Media Business Group of Sony Music Entertainment. My advice to the government is to organise shows and events that can be enjoyed by all the family and follow the example of Las Vegas. Why should the big events go first to the US, Europe and then Asia? This should change.

Japanese are the fourth largest source of tourists for Macao and the number is growing, in part because of direct flights which began in 2007. They are attracted here by the diversity of entertainment, culture, cuisine and shopping.

According to figures from the Macau Government Tourist Office (MGTO) the number of Japanese visitors in 2009 was 379,24  more than double the 2005 figure of 169,115, with an average annual increase of more than 25 per cent. They ranked fourth in the inbound tourism market. In the first seven months of 2010, the number was 234,167, an increase of 20.2 per cent over the same 2009 period.

Until direct flights were established, Macao was a secondary destination for Japanese, a place to spend one or two days as part of a tour to Hong Kong or south China. Then, in 2007, Air Macau started serving Kansai International Airport in Osaka and, since March 2010, has been flying five times a week. In March 2010, the company inaugurated a two-weekly service to Narita airport in Tokyo. 

New destination

Macao has become a new destination, said Tetsuya Yamada, general manager of JTB (Macau) Travel Ltd. There has been a sharp increase in the number of Japanese who only visit Macao. Flying from Japan takes three and a half hours, while flying to Hong Kong and then coming to Macao by boat takes six and a half hours  in that time, you could go to Bangkok or Singapore.

For Japanese, Macao changed as a destination with the opening of Wynn in September 2006 and the Venetian in August 2007. Las Vegas is very famous in Japan, said Yamada. From 1995 to 2000 there was a boom in the number of Japanese going there. Then the numbers dropped. It is a long-haul flight. But, like Hong Kong, Taiwan, Beijing, Shanghai, Korea, Guam and Saipan, Macao is a short-haul flight. You can come for three days and two nights.

The opening of Wynn attracted great attention in Japan because of the fame of its casino resort in Las Vegas. Then, when the Venetian opened, it was heavily promoted in Japan. These two led to a sharp increase in the number of visitors coming only to Macao, he said.

Although it allows gambling on pachinko, slot machines and horse and cycle racing, Japan bans casinos, so people have to go abroad to play in them. With the rapid expansion of the industry in Macao, it offers the most varied casino experience within a short flying distance of Japan. The other options are Seoul, Saipan and Genting Highlands in Malaysia and, further afield, New Caledonia and Sydney.

Yamada said that about half of the Japanese visitors gamble. They bet with about 10,000 yen and try the slot machines. They do not gamble with the intensity of Chinese. 

Katsuhiko Tsugeno, 53, is typical of the new type of Japanese tourist. He and his wife flew the three and a half hours from Osaka on a Wednesday and returned on a Sunday, so that he could report for work the next day. They did not visit Hong Kong. Japanese enjoy the atmosphere and feeling of Las Vegas in the big casinos of Macao, with some betting up to two million yen, he said.

But he was not entirely satisfied with the Venetian, where he and his wife stayed. The staff do not speak Japanese. The waiter and dealer service is poor, worse than other places. It is very big and easy to get lost. There are no convenience stores or supermarkets, so we cannot always find the food we want, like nigiri (a form of sushi) for breakfast.

Of the visitors who come through JTB, 55 per cent are individuals and 45 per cent are groups. These groups include parties of up to 1,000 people from a company which gives their employees a holiday once or twice a year. This is a very important slice of the market; it needs the skill and size of big hotels to handle such large numbers. If a person has a good experience on a group holiday, he will come back on his own or with his family.

The MGTO figures show that, in 2009, the average length of stay for a Japanese visitor was 1.89 nights, up from 1.53 in 2005 and 1.79 in 2008. Among those who stay in five-star hotels, the average length was 2.42 nights, while those in cheaper hotels stayed for less than 1.5 days. Of the total, 44 per cent of the visitors came and left on the same day and 56 per cent stayed for at least one night.

The Macao Government Tourist Office was very active in Japan in promoting tourism during 2010. It attended the Japan Association of Trade Agents World Tourism Congress and World Trade Fair in September  the two most important events for the industry in Japan. In December it attended the 20th International Meetings Expo at Tokyo International Forum and hosted a product seminar, mini mart and dinner in Tokyo and Osaka with 27 trade representatives from Macao tour operators and hotels. 

Culture and history 

Gambling is one of the things which attract Japanese to Macao. The others are culture, food and shopping. In 2005, the centre of the SAR was declared a World Heritage site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), making it a major draw for tourists. Every day you find groups of Japanese walking around the centre, enjoying the churches, museums and old buildings.

Women especially like the churches and their atmosphere, said Yamada. Also they are accessible. You can walk from one to another. It is very good when individuals have done their own research and walk around the World Heritage sites, with a book in one hand.

One popular spot is the crypt below the ruins of St Pauls Church, which houses the remains of Japanese Catholic martyrs and a small museum of religious relics, including a painting completed in 1640 of the crucifixion of 26 martyrs.

It recalls one of the most tragic episodes of Christendom. Jesuits based in Macao brought Catholicism to Japan. But in the late 16th century, the Japanese shogun outlawed the religion and began to execute those who refused to recant. Hundreds fled their homeland and took refuge in Macao, where they lived in the area round the church. It was Japanese stonemasons who helped to carve the facades of the church. The remains are of 59 Japanese martyrs, brought to Macao for burial. Their names are listed on a plaque in front of the crypt.

I did not know this remarkable story until today, said Hiroshi Nagakawa, a company representative, as he read the explanation in front of the crypt. We were a closed country then. People in Nagasaki know about the martyrs because they lived there. Many others do not. We should keep an open mind and learn new things all the time. 

Groups of Japanese tourists visit the crypt every day and marvel at this link of blood between their country and Macao four centuries ago.


The range of food available is another attraction for Japanese visitors, giving them choices they do not enjoy at home. We like the variety of food, both Chinese and Western, said Tsugeno. The arrival of so many new hotels and casinos in the last ten years has brought a wide array of tastes, including French, Italian, Spanish, Indian, Filipino, Korean and Japanese, as well as every kind of Chinese and Portuguese cuisine.

The ladies like delicious desserts, like sweets, egg tarts and milk puddings, said Yamada. Eating is an important aspect of the holiday, especially for the ladies. Macao offers different kinds of cuisine.

A popular restaurant for Japanese, where Goryo from Sony was enjoying his dinner, is Manuel in Taipa, which serves Portuguese cuisine. It is owned by a long-time Portuguese resident of Macao, who has opened four restaurants under the Manuel brand in Tokyo since 2002. One of them is the House of Fado, where diners enjoy their meal to the sound of Portugals haunting traditional music.

I train the chefs here and send them to Japan, said Manuel. The rents in Tokyo are high but the businesses are profitable. Many of our Japanese customers come to my restaurant here when they visit Macao.

The many new hotels and casinos have also brought with them an enormous variety of retail, especially of major brands  another draw for the lady visitors. Good law and order is an additional plus for Macao as a destination.


This flood of Japanese visitors has persuaded the Okura Hotel, one of Japan's best-known chains, to open a Macao branch in 2011. It will be only the second Japanese-invested hotel in the SAR, after the Hotel Royal, which has been operated for 20 years by the Daiji Group.

The new Okura will open in the Cotai Strip, with 32 floors above ground, one below and 488 rooms. It will not have a casino. Guests who wish to gamble will be able to walk to the neighbouring Galaxy Casino, which will have 700 gaming tables and leisure facilities, including a large swimming pool, fitness centre and spa.

In a press release, Okura said that the new hotel was part of an international expansion that had begun in 1979 with the opening of the Shilla Seoul, and included hotels in Shanghai, Hawaii, Amsterdam and two in Taiwan. 

Macao, where Hotel Okura will be making its first appearance, is both an entertainment capital of the world whose leading business sector is its casinos, and features numerous historical buildings and plazas designated as world cultural heritage sites  We consider the operation of a hotel in the Cotai Strip a unique opportunity for Hotel Okura to raise its international profile as Japans leading luxury-brand hotel, reads the release.


The development of Macao as an independent destination for Japanese travellers is closely related to direct air links between the two. Before they began in 2007, travellers had to come here by ferry from Hong Kong or by land from the mainland, meaning that Macao was included as the last stop in a tour of Hong Kong or of cities in the mainland.

On 19 May 2009, Macao and Japan signed a bilateral Air Service Agreement, establishing a legal framework for operation of scheduled air services between the two places. On 10 February 2010, Lau Si Io, secretary for transport and public works, and Shigekazu Sato, consul-general of Japan, formally signed the bilateral Air Services Agreement, in the presence of Chief Executive Fernando Chui. Under the agreement, both parties can designate more than one airline; the designated airlines can fly to all points on each side; and no restrictions are imposed on the capacity, apart from the Macao-designated airlines on the Tokyo route.

A milestone was reached in March 2010, when Air Macau began the first scheduled flights to Tokyo; previously, it had only been able to fly charter planes. Air Macau can extend its services to cities in China in partnership with Air China, combining Hong Kong and Macao with All Nippon Airways (ANA) and Taiwan and Macao with Eva Air.

In 2009 and 2010, the percentage of Japanese arrivals by air was less than ten per cent, with more than 80 per cent arriving by sea. The potential in expanding the market is big.

Narita, the main international airport of Tokyo, is a bottleneck, unable to meet the demands placed on it. So Air Macaus best hope is the citys smaller airport, Haneda, which opened a fourth runway in October last year (2010). Haneda has the advantage over Narita in that it is located within the city, just 13 minutes by train from the Yamanote, the citys main underground loop line.


One market which Macao has barely tapped is the destination wedding favoured by thousands of Japanese couples. They choose to marry abroad, taking about a dozen close friends and family members, instead of holding a large-scale ceremony at home. The overall cost of a modest wedding abroad is often cheaper than a large celebration at home; it is also more relaxed and easier for the couple themselves to control.

The most popular destination is Hawaii, followed by Guam, Saipan, Bali, Fiji, cruise ships and cities in mainland US. The weddings are held in halls and clubs that resemble but are not churches and with a person who is dressed like a minister but is not a real one. Companies have built facilities specially to cater to Japanese couples and trained staff to look after them. Bona fide churches and temples usually refuse to marry people who have no connection with them and are not believers.

Macao is closer than these popular destinations and, with its long history and European architecture, has the romantic ambience that would appeal to many young people. It also has an abundance of beautiful, historic churches, many of them under-used as their congregations decline. But it is unclear whether those who run the churches would be willing to use them for such a commercial purpose.

Another possibility is to create special venues for Japanese couples, as in other countries.

By Staff Reporter in Macao

(Issue N. 6, January 2011)