MACAU – In a scene from the James Bond movie "Skyfall," the British superspy arrives in Macau aboard a small raft that glides under an arched bridge, past hundreds of floating paper lanterns and through an illuminated dragon head to reach a casino.
When I made the trip to the tiny Chinese gambling mecca at the height of the Lunar New Year holiday on Monday, it was decidedly less glamorous.
I joined crowds of fellow travelers, mostly from mainland China, cramming into an aging ferry terminal in Hong Kong to board a hydrofoil ferry for the hour-long trip. Elsewhere, tens of thousands jammed border checkpoints with mainland China.
The holiday, which began Friday, is the busiest time of year for the former Portuguese colony, which Beijing regained control of in 1999 and is the only place in China where casinos are legal.
Celebrations include fireworks, lion dances and parades but the main draws are the 35 casinos that have made Macau the world's biggest gambling market. While tens of millions of mainland Chinese visit Macau annually, numbers surge during the holiday, often referred to as the world's biggest migration, when Chinese believe their luck at the baccarat tables is strongest. The result is extreme congestion on many stops on the tourist trail in this city of just 30 square kilometers, leaving infrastructure straining and local residents simmering.
I've visited Macau dozens of times over the past few years from my base in Hong Kong but have avoided going during the Lunar New Year holiday. This year I decided to brave the hordes of Chinese gamblers to see in the Year of the Horse.
"From an auspicious perspective this is the time of the year to come here to win," said Chris Wieners, managing director of Hogo Marketing, which works with casinos. He also runs another business bringing tourists to town for big events. "The feeling is almost like they can't lose, you have to win."
He cautioned that when visiting Macau during the holiday, there are "more cons than pros:" travel is a "nightmare," prices are inflated and hotels are full.
Authorities in Macau, population 598,000, were expecting 2.6 million visitors over the weeklong holiday period, according to local broadcaster TDM.
The influx is part of a broader tide of visitors drawn by the breakneck expansion of Macau's casino industry over the past decade. About 29 million people visited Macau last year, most from mainland China, and their gambling helped the city rake in $45 billion in casino revenue last year. That's about seven times the amount on the Las Vegas Strip and more even than the total earned by all 12,042 casinos in the U.S.
Foreign operators including Sands China, the Asian arm of U.S. billionaire Sheldon Adelson's casino company, are spending billions to build a slew of new megaresorts in Cotai, reclaimed swampland between two islands that's Asia's version of the Las Vegas Strip.
Resorts already there include Sands China's flagship, Venetian Macao, where the vast gambling floor was thronged even though it wasn't yet noon. So was the mall upstairs, where shops line a faux Venetian canal complete with singing gondoliers.
The crowds were too much for me so I hopped on a free shuttle bus back to peninsular Macau to see two of the most popular tourist sights, Senado Square and St. Paul's church, part of the city's historic center granted World Heritage Status in 2005. The cobblestoned square's pastel neo-classical buildings give off a Mediterranean vibe, a reminder of centuries spent under Portuguese rule.
From here it's usually an easy walk through winding, narrow lanes to the hilltop ruins of St. Paul's. Not today. Police have set up crowd control barriers and rerouted traffic near the square. The lanes are jammed with tourists. At one point it's shoulder-to-shoulder.
The congestion infuriates some residents.
"The ruthless pace of mainlanders conflicts with the local way of life," newspaper vendor Ben Lai Hou-kei told the South China Morning Post of Hong Kong.
Paradoxically, while visitor numbers are up, casino profits may not get a bump, industry insiders say.
"The very rich people with the highest net worth will avoid going during Chinese New Year," said Hoffman Ma, deputy chairman of Success Universe Group, which runs Ponte 16, a casino-resort where attractions include a Michael Jackson-themed gallery featuring one of his white crystal-studded gloves
Instead, analysts said, wealthy Chinese are now opting to visit a week or more after the holiday starts. These high-rollers, whose visits are arranged by junket operators, account for about two-thirds of Macau's total casino revenue.
At the Casino Lisboa, near Macau's downtown, gamblers jammed the crowded casino floor, where minimum bets at some tables went as high as $1,000 Hong Kong dollars ($129) — pricey by Vegas standards.
Cherry Yang, a hotel worker from Shanghai and novice gambler, placed a few bets.
"I said, 'Just tell me what's the easiest game to play'," said Yang, who was steered to the dice game Sic Bo. "I lost 2,000 renminbi ($330) in 15 to 20 minutes," she said with a chuckle.
Though unfazed by the crowds, Yang and husband Allan complained about waiting "an hour" for a cab to go from the Lisboa to Fisherman's Wharf, a theme park, a journey they could have done in 30 minutes by foot.
Follow Kelvin Chan at twitter.com/chanman