UPDATE 1-Macau gambling revenue up 7 percent in Jan, misses estimates
* Casino capital rakes in $3.6 bln
* Slowest growth since October 2012
* Analysts expected 11-15 pct growth
* February revenue expected to be strong
HONG KONG, Feb 5 (Reuters) - Gaming revenues in Macau, the world's casino capital, grew at the slowest pace in 15 months in January, raking in a lower-than-expected 28.7 billion patacas ($3.6 billion), due to tempered spending by Chinese visitors ahead of a national holiday.
Analysts were expecting revenue to grow between 11-15 percent in Macau, a special administrative region of China like neighbouring Hong Kong and the country's only legal casino hub.
The former Portuguese colony, which earns the equivalent of Las Vegas's annual haul in less than two months, raked in $45 billion in 2013, elevating it above rival gaming destinations.
Gambling demand is seasonally subdued in Macau ahead of the Chinese New Year holiday, which started on Jan. 31, with many visitors saving their visits for the holiday period.
February revenues are expected to be strong with local media reporting a deluge of 2.5 million visitors flooding into the densely populated territory during the holiday period. Macau, which is around a third the size of Manhattan, is home to just 500,000 people.
"Due to the calendar date difference between this year and last year for the Chinese New Year, I think we need to look at January/February combined number to neutralise the holiday difference," said DS Kim, analyst at BNP Paribas in Hong Kong.
While 2013 saw rapid gambling revenue growth, analysts have lower expectations for the coming year due to macro economic uncertainties in China and the potential for slower credit growth that could impact the liquidity of the VIP segment.
Growth of the VIP segment, largely populated by high rollers from the mainland, is expected to slow to around 5-10 percent annually, while spending by China's burgeoning middle class is likely to grow at around 25-30 percent.
One of the world's fastest-growing economies, Macau has been a gold mine for gaming operators like U.S. billionaires Sheldon Adelson and Steve Wynn whose Macau units, Sands China and Wynn Macau, posted strong fourth-quarter earnings.
The shares of Sands China dropped 7 percent after the results were announced on Wednesday. Galaxy Entertainment Group Ltd plunged 8 percent while Wynn Macau dropped 6 percent, underperforming the benchmark Hang Seng Index which was down 0.5 percent. Casino stocks have surged from 40 percent to more than 130 percent in the last year.
While no new casinos are set to open in Macau this year, the gambling hub will see the opening of eight new resorts over the next three years.
Low penetration and improving infrastructure developments that will shorten the journey from the mainland to Macau, located on China's southern coast, are likely to continue to drive visitation and further demand for gambling say analysts.
Macau's expansion comes as rival gaming destinations from the Philippines to Russia set up casino resorts to lure wealthy Asian punters.
Local Macau authorities and top officials in Beijing are pushing to diversify Macau away from its reliance on gaming by expanding entertainment, retail and convention facilities. The moves are intended to attract a wider visitor base who come to Macau for leisure and tourism rather than gambling.