Macau casinos go smoke-free – will it hurt revenues?

Tracking the impact of a smoking ban in Macau
Tracking the impact of a smoking ban in Macau   

A smoking ban in Asia's Las Vegas took effect over the weekend, sparking concerns that the policy could stub out the gaming outlook for Macau.

Macau's latest measure, introduced on Monday, will see all main gaming floors in its 35 casinos go smoke-free. Casino operators are allowed to build smoking lounges but installation of gaming tables or slot machines are prohibited within these areas. To date, only 12 of the special administrative region's casinos are ready with smoking lounges on their mass floors, according to a government statement over the weekend.

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The rules are stricter-than-expected; analysts had expected members-only and premium mass areas to be exempt from the smoking curb, but authorities widened the scope of their ban on September 30. Some worry the ban could hurt gaming operators' revenue, which is already declining as Beijing's two-year-old anti-graft campaign keeps high-rollers from the Mainland away.

"Previously we had expected just a low-to-mid-single-digit percentage impact to overall gross gaming revenue (GGR) from the smoking ban, but we now expect a higher mid-to-high-single-digit impact [since] smoking is not allowed in premium mass areas as well," Barclays Research wrote in a note.

Chinese gamblers at a casino located inside the Venetian hotel in Macau, China.
Philippe Lopez | AFP | Getty Images
Chinese gamblers at a casino located inside the Venetian hotel in Macau, China.

Immaterial impact

Some industry watchers are less pessimistic. The ban will "lead to an immaterial 2 percent decline in mass GGR," Citi Research said.

"Most mainland Chinese players will not stop visiting Macau just because they are not allowed to smoke at the tables," analysts wrote in a note on Monday. "These are serious players that are prepared to pay for some of the most expensive hotel rooms for the privilege of gambling in the only legal gambling place in China."

The smoke-free policy is the "smallest worry" for gaming operators right now, John Bruce, director of Operations for Macau at Hill & Associates, told CNBC Asia's "Street Signs".

"All major casinos are well-prepared… there are smoking lounges across the main floors. My experiences in countries like Australia tell me that people will adapt," Bruce said. "The bigger worry should be whether China is still growing. The fall in casino stocks in the past months has been an overreaction to the anti-corruption drive… Wealthy Chinese still want to gamble and the VIP segment is still profitable."

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Headwinds

The world's biggest gambling hub is going through tough times. Latest data show gambling revenue fell 11.7 percent on year to $3.21 billion in September, its fourth consecutive monthly decline. Apart from Beijing's clampdown on corruption, a raft of curbs – government limits on gambling tables, a crackdown on unauthorized debit card use and transit visas restrictions – also threaten Macau's tourism numbers.

Asia's most prominent gambling enclave was also hit by labor unrest last week as nearly 300 casino dealers from MGM China walked off the job, demanding higher wages and better benefits, Reuters reported on Friday.

Fortunately, pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong have not delivered the negative impact that analysts initially predicted. Since September 27, protesters in defiance of a election ruling from Beijing have blocked the heart of Hong Kong's financial center.

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Operators have seen a positive impact "as some visitors replace their Hong Kong trip with Macau or extend their stay in Macau," Credit Suisse analysts wrote on Monday.

Gaming stocks suffered heavy losses last week as Hong Kong witnessed its worst civil unrest in decades. On Monday they rebounded: Galaxy Entertainment Group soared 7 percent while Sands China jumped 6 percent. MGM China and Wynn Macau closed up 5 percent each.