Focus on Asia: Travel troubles

August 3, 2023 8:00 AM
Photo: Shutterstock
  • Ben Blaschke — Managing Editor, IAG
August 3, 2023 8:00 AM
  • Ben Blaschke — Managing Editor, IAG

For many of us, the resumption of travel post-COVID has by now well and truly returned to normal, with pandemic-restricted days long ago relegated to the rearview mirror. But for those involved in the Macau gaming industry, the chance to travel quarantine-free in and out of the SAR is still somewhat of a novelty after three years of particularly tight border restrictions.

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It was certainly with some nostalgia that I flew back into Macau (from the Philippines) for the first time a few months back, and a handful of weeks later hopped onto a bus back across the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge. The memories.

But when I returned again just a few short weeks ago – this time flying into Hong Kong from Sydney and taking the bus into Macau – I learned a few things about the Macau government’s plan to increase international visitation to the world’s largest casino hub. Number one? There is a long way to go before that dream can become a reality.

The goal of increasing Macau’s international visitation segment – that of people from outside mainland China, Hong Kong or Taiwan – to at least 10% of the total was outlined as part of the government’s re-tendering process for gaming concessions. This included offering a tax break of up to 5% on any gaming revenues generated by foreigners. So far, concessionaires have responded by converting some old junket spaces into dedicated foreigner-only gaming zones, even though targeting high-end players alone will not move the needle enough to reach that magic 10% figure.

Macau will instead need to broaden its mass tourism appeal. Can I suggest improving the travel experience itself? Here’s what I found.

I landed in Hong Kong in late June and made my way through customs as I’ve done many dozens of times before. This was, however, the first time I had decided to take the bus across the HKZM Bridge from Hong Kong to Macau. In the past, I used to take a train to the city and then walk to Shun Tak to catch a ferry.

Luckily, I had caught the bus in the other direction a few times, so I had some idea where I was going. Nevertheless, it took me a good 10 minutes to find the bus stop that would take me to the Hong Kong port, given the lack of any decent signage. I feel for any newcomers doing this trip blind.

For those who are unaware, there is no direct bus across the HKZM Bridge that leaves from or arrives at Hong Kong airport. Instead, an extra 10-minute ride on a local bus is required to get from the airport to the bridge’s Hong Kong port itself.

This trip costs just under HK$10, meaning any first-time bridge users arriving at Hong Kong will need to find some local currency or buy themselves an Octopus Card – again, poorly communicated (but I knew this was coming so was prepared).

The port itself is excellent – clean, fast and easy to navigate – although I note that the ticketing machines upon entry do not accept credit cards: a minor inconvenience but an inconvenience nonetheless.

An hour later, I was stepping off my bus and into the Macau port, in need of cash before taking a taxi to the colleague’s house where I’d be staying. But the Macau port has no ATMs in the arrivals hall and Macau taxis don’t take credit cards either.

Needless to say, I would have been stranded had I not arranged for my colleague to meet me outside as I was dropped off so he could pay the fare for me. But hey, at least there was a taxi available this time around – not always the case in the early evening in Macau!

Why do I tell you this story? It’s not to have a whinge – that’s really not my style – but to highlight some of the basic impediments that still exist for anyone trying to visit Macau for the very first time. After all, I knew how to get to Macau and still found the process challenging.

If Macau truly wants to increase its international tourism appeal, it would do well not to make it so hard to get there in the first place.