Macau casinos slash food perks after city’s restaurants complain they’re struggling

At a well-known Macau hotel casino last week, business was booming even on a weekday with crowds of visitors in the lobby and around the gambling tables.

Hundreds of people were gathered around rows of tables and slot machines. The occasional eruption of cheers at certain stations drew curious onlookers and other gamblers hoping to cash in on the lucky streak.

But something was missing – the extravagant spread of free food the city’s casinos were famous for serving visitors to keep them coming, according to social media.

The gold-flaked abalone tarts, pork chop buns, designer sandwiches and free flow of bubble tea were nowhere to be found.

“We don’t do those any more,” a staff member said. “If you want to eat, you can dine at one of our restaurants.”

The lavish offerings of free food to anyone over 21, the minimum age to enter a Macau casino, were featured recently on China’s Instagram-like social media platform Xiaohongshu.

But the free food has mostly disappeared after Macau’s gaming watchdog reportedly told the city’s six gambling operators to stop as nearby restaurants complained the practice was affecting their business, according to local media.

“The food offered by casinos earlier could be described as ‘eclectic’,” said Andy Wu Keng-kuong, chairman of the Travel Industry Council of Macau.

“This perhaps caused some tourists to become very engaged, and they forgot to visit other parts of the community.”

He meant visitors who lapped up the free food saw no reason to patronise the city’s restaurants.

In fact, there have been social media posts offering tutorials on how to holiday in Macau on a “zero-budget” by taking advantage of freebies available in many places besides the casinos.

They suggested saving on transport expenses by hopping on free hotel coaches, being entertained by performances in shopping malls and hotel lobbies, and heading to souvenir streets for unlimited tasting samples of snacks and egg tarts.

After the eateries complained, the casinos responded by offering free food and drinks only to gambling patrons, instead of serving anyone in their public areas.

While the issue seems to have been resolved for now, it reflected wider issues with Macau’s post-pandemic economy, according to some restaurant operators.

“The state of our restaurant industry is quite miserable at the moment,” said Moon Tong Ut-i, manager of the iconic Riquexó restaurant that has been serving traditional Macanese cuisine for over three decades.

Just as in Hong Kong, Macau has also seen its residents flocking to neighbouring mainland Chinese cities such as Zhuhai to spend their weekends and holidays.

“We had a period just after the pandemic when things seemed like they were improving, but as soon as borders reopened with the mainland and people were allowed to drive north again … it has been very difficult for proper restaurants like us to survive,” Tong said.

Meanwhile, mainland and Hong Kong visitors, who made up the bulk of Macau’s incoming tourists, seemed less willing to spend.

“Macau used to be so crowded you could barely move, especially in popular sightseeing areas during major holidays, but what I saw during the ‘golden week’ holiday in May was really far from that,” she said.

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The Ruins of St Paul is a popular tourist attraction in Macau. Mainland and Hong Kong visitors make up the bulk of Macau’s incoming tourists. Photo: Elson Li

Tong said she had suffered five years of losses and the outlook for the near future was bleak. She hoped that at least, the casinos would stick with holding back on the free food and drinks.

Businessman Justin Chang, who opened WJ Cafe after the pandemic selling a variety of Southeast Asian noodles and snacks, said he was now not sure he made the right move.

“We all assumed life would return to normal after the pandemic, so I thought I would give it a try,” he said. “Who would’ve thought everyone would leave?”

He said there were Macau office workers who even drove across the border just for lunch, before returning to the city.

Restaurants were not the only ones struggling.

Over by the Ruins of St Paul’s, a major tourist attraction with rows of souvenir shops, Jessica Lei Nga-si, who runs jewellery store Ourivesaria e Joalharia Cherry, said the pace of recovery had been slower than expected.

She felt the retail industry was struggling even more than during the pandemic when government support measures were in place.

International events such as the Russia-Ukraine war, Israeli–Palestinian conflict and the coming United States presidential election had caused major fluctuations in gold prices, hitting the jewellery trade.

“But we did get some good news recently, when they raised the duty-free threshold,” she said.

Beijing last month raised the duty-free shopping allowance for mainland visitors to Hong Kong and Macau to as much as 15,000 yuan (US$2,060) per trip, with the measure taking effect at certain border crossings on July 1.

“We are really hoping it can be further increased,” Lei said.

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