Macau, Jan. 30, 2009: When times were better in this former Portuguese colony, hordes of tourists from mainland China came not only to gamble, but to shop and spend and even experience a little bit of Italy.
The Venetian Macau, which opened its doors in August, 2007, boasts of being the world's largest casino. But it's not the 340 slot machines and 800 gaming tables that grab your attention. It's the spectacle that surrounds them.
Between trips to the baccarat and blackjack tables, you can stroll out into the miniature "Venice" that American billionaire Sheldon Adelson built in this corner of southeast China.
Inside the Venetian are addresses like Marco Polo Street, St. Mark's Square and the Grand Canal. The latter is one of three canals that run through the mall, giving gamblers and their families the opportunity to take rides on tradition Venetian rowboats that come equipped with gondoliers sporting the same striped shirts, wide-brimmed hats and red waist sashes that they do in the Italian version. The big-voiced gondoliers serenade their customers with English and Italian songs as they navigate along the shallow waterways, passing by high-end clothing stores whose facades have been designed to look like Venetian houses, complete with tiny overhanging balconies.
The only thing missing from this Venice is a decent pizza joint.
(It's not even the most bizarre casino idea in town. The Greek Mythology Casino has a large statue of Zeus in the lobby but slipped up on a few other historical details. The entrance is guarded by oversized Roman centurions.)
But even the painted blue skies on the ceiling over the Grand Canal can't distract from the reality that this Venice, or at least part of it, is sinking.
As the global economic crisis sweeps through Asia, fewer and fewer mainland Chinese -- who account for the vast majority of all visitors to Macau -- come to gamble.
Though the Venetian is still the busiest place in town, it has proven to be far from immune to the effects. Many shops along the Grand Canal this week were advertising going-out-of-business sales.
The line-ups for the gondola rides have shrunk too, and last month half the gondoliers got the same bad news so many people around the world have received since the economic crisis began last year: they were out of a job.