This July 11, 2022 photo shows the famous Grand Lisboa, center, in Macao. (KONG / AP)
HONG KONG – The Macao Special Administrative Region government opened bids on Friday from seven companies, including a wildcard from Malaysian operator Genting, for licenses to operate casinos in the world's biggest gambling hub, kicking off a closely watched battle for six available slots.
The SAR’s top officials attended the opening together with top executives from Macao casinos Las Vegas Sands Macao unit Sands China, Wynn Macau and MGM China.
GMM's application was seen as a surprise to many executives and analysts, with some saying it posed extra uncertainty for local operators
All six incumbent Macao players, which also include Galaxy Entertainment, Melco Resorts and SJM Holding, submitted bids ahead of a deadline on Wednesday together with GMM Limited, a holding company of Genting Group Chairman Sri Lim Kok Thay, which does not operate casinos in Macao.
GMM's application was seen as a surprise to many executives and analysts, with some saying it posed extra uncertainty for local operators.
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Genting would have been encouraged to apply and would be a good fit given they are the only operator of the applicants with a strong background in theme parks, said Ben Lee, founder of Macao gaming consultancy IGamiX.
"There is a chance they can topple one of the incumbents. They (Genting) think so, too, otherwise they wouldn't have laid out a HK$10 million (US$1.27 million) buy in bet."
Genting operates casinos in Singapore, Malaysia, the United States and Britain and has extensive non-gaming operations — a key priority for the Macao SAR government. It has also made a series of investments in the Chinese mainland, including a prime ski resort which hosted the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic games.
The sector has been reeling since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, with revenues sliding 70 percent in 2021 to US$10.8 billion from US$36 billion in 2019.
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Macao's new casino licenses are expected to begin in 2023 and are crucial for the six incumbents to keep operating their multi-billion dollar properties. They have collectively invested some US$40 billion in Macao since casinos were liberalized more than 20 years ago.
All companies submitted their bids in person via two large stacks of paper files, transported by trolleys, to the Macao SAR government on Wednesday, according to footage from public broadcaster TDM. They had to pay HK$10 million to apply.
The bidding comes as Macao casinos have been slammed by ongoing COVID curbs and travel restrictions.
The number of awarded licenses will not change from 6, Macao SAR Secretary for Administration and Justice André Cheong Weng-chon said ahead of the bid opening. The government will review the proposals and negotiate with bidders before announcing the winners before the end of the year, he said.
Analysts expect results to come by end of November or early December.
For the bids, companies must show "special consideration…to develop foreign tourist markets, experience in operating casino games, investment in gaming and non gaming projects for Macao's benefit, plans to manage the casino, plans to monitor and prevent illegal activities and social responsibilities," according to a statement on the government's website.
Genting Malaysia confirmed its indirect subsidiary GMM submitted a bid to the Macao SAR government in a statement to the Malaysian stock exchange on Sept 15.
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The move is an opportunity to "expand its business in the leisure and hospitality sector, diversify its geographical footprint and participate in the recovery prospects" in Macao.
Genting applied for a Macao license more than two decades ago but was not successful. Since 2020 it has begun construction on a hotel in the south of Macao's main peninsula. It is slated to open later this year.
Genting will still be able to operate its hotel resort even if it does not win a new casino license, according to Macao SAR laws.