Dr Desmond Lam is a professor of marketing who wrote his doctoral thesis on gambling behavior from a consumer perspective. He followed up with three years at the University of Macau. Since then, he has written extensively on gambling-related issues. CHINA ECONOMIC REVIEW spoke to Lam about the state of Macau’s gaming sector and the territory’s plans to attract more foreign custom.
Q: What are the particular characteristics of the Chinese gamblers?
A: The “illusion of control” in Chinese gamblers is high. Chinese people tend to gamble a lot more and are higher risk-takers. There is a sense in the industry the Chinese tend to be more hard-core gamblers as opposed to Vegas gamblers who are there to have fun. Chinese gamblers in Macau are here to beat the house and make money.
Q: Does this style of gambling indicate a problem or just a cultural attitude?
A: I wouldn’t call it compulsive gambling, but the motivation is different. You can’t say someone is a problem gambler just because they take risks. And cultural values do play a part. The superstitions of Taoism, Feng Shui and Chinese numerology all still hold very strongly among some Chinese.
Q: In a recent paper, you argued that Macau is a “victim of its own success.” Can you explain what you meant?
A: Before liberalization of the gaming industry there wasn’t much talk in Macau about how to control the process. Once it opened up in 2002, there was an influx of people from the mainland, and there were the usual issues caused by overcrowding and gambling culture. Now Macau is perceived to be exporting gambling ills to the mainland. It’s something the government could have anticipated, but did not. To be fair, no one expected Macau to do so well in such a short time.
Q: Are the recent increases of state control of the gambling industry and visa restrictions on mainlanders a temporary reaction or a long-term strategic change?
A: It’s probably a temporary issue. As soon as Macau begins to transform itself into more of an entertainment mecca, the government is likely to loosen up. The question is, can mass gaming and the Cotai Strip model take off? Also, there is currently an over-focus on VIPs and less on mass gaming. This has to change.
Q: Most gamblers in Macau are Chinese. What can be done to attract more non-Chinese players?
A: They have done a lot in the last two or three years. For example, Southeast Asian players are coming in bigger numbers now, partly because of the growth of low-cost carriers serving Macau, and partly because of promotional offers to attract non-Chinese customers.