The Chinese special administrative region reopens after three years of pandemic restrictions. Both the public and private sectors are ready for a new phase: increasing the extra tourist offer and betting on foreign markets. The director of the Macau Tourism Bureau, Maria Helena de Senna Fernandes, sees Portuguese support as essential to this strategy. In the Greater Bay Area she argues that Macau “has to help create a brand for international markets.
Tourism, the mainstay of the economy, is back. Initially forecasting 40,000 visitors per day, does the data from the first quarter allow you to meet that goal?
Maria Helena de Senna Fernandes – When we made this projection the scenario was completely different. At that time we were still talking about the reopening of group tours to specific parts of inland China, we were very limited. I don’t think anyone thought we were going to be closed for so long, without contact with the outside. And I’m not just talking about international markets, because there wasn’t even the possibility of opening with Hong Kong or Taiwan, due to the quarantine requirement.
Today the scenario is much better. In January we had a daily average of 45 thousand visitors, in February over 57 thousand and in March we exceeded 60 thousand. It’s quite positive. We are more or less at 50 per cent of the numbers recorded in 2019, because before the pandemic we had about 107,000 daily visitors.
Still, I believe we are on a good path, although still limited to the mainland China and Hong Kong markets. In Hong Kong we have already recovered about 75 to 80 per cent of visitors; in mainland China about half. Regarding Taiwan and the international markets, we are still about 20 per cent away from the pre-pandemic numbers. There is still a lot of work to do, and of course the focus now will be on the international level.
With the political focus being on economic diversification… decreasing reliance on gambling revenues, what is changing in the tourism sector and diversification of supply?
M.H.S.F. – The new gaming contracts give the Macau Government room to achieve more. But that doesn’t mean we weren’t working on international markets in 2019. That year we had more than three million visitors from abroad, meaning there was already a pretty solid base, plus we had supply for those markets.
The Government also has very clear ideas of the sectors to be developed to diversify the economy. We are talking about the health, sports, convention and exhibition industries (MICE), technology, and even outside the tourism area, the modern finance industry. It is our responsibility to bring opportunities to these sectors. Not just bringing in tourists, but bringing in the right people to support the development of these emerging industries. The MICE industry, for example, is an area we have been developing for many years. Although it is now under the purview of the Macau Trade and Investment Promotion Institute (IPIM), we have always collaborated.
On the other hand, we are using many cultural and creative elements to develop tourism products, because tourism is inseparable from culture. It is a very strong base to attract tourists and also a way to manifest our history.
The renegotiation of gaming contracts requires concessionaires to bet on MICE industries. Do you expect this to change the image of the city?
M.H.S.F. – Right now Macau is not only about gaming. We are seeing a lot of different tourists than the ones we had in 2019. There are many streets that are full of tourists and don’t have gambling. Gambling is important for Macau, it will continue to be and it will bring us a lot of opportunities. But we are working on non-gaming products, because that will be the future.
We have also started to look at student tourism. We will begin to bring students from the interior of China, Hong Kong, to Macau and, in the future, we will host international study tours. Because Macau is a window for our country to have contact with the outside world and, in the opposite direction, for international visitors to have contact with China.
As our objectives of diversifying tourism products are now aligned with those of the gaming companies, this will manifest itself in sports, shows, maritime tourism, among others.
What has to change for Macau to conquer new market segments? At what pace do you think that is possible?
M.H.S.F. – The fact that we are working very hard and on several fronts makes us forget that, in truth, the borders only reopened three months ago. We are aware that there is still a lot to do and that there are things that are not in our hands, such as the worldwide recovery of the aviation sector. What we can control, we are doing. Last year we opened a TikTok account for the international market, among other social networks we joined to communicate with different people and countries. We are also inviting foreign influencers to visit Macau and seeing domestically who is proficient in foreign languages to help us make different videos and speed up our reaction time.
What importance does Portugal have as a source of new tourists. Can it also be a bridge to Western Europe and Portuguese Speaking Countries?
M.H.S.F. – We have historical ties with Portugal. Moreover, many people from Europe travel to Portugal, either for leisure or business. Portugal is the first step towards reopening our work in Europe, and even in Portuguese-speaking countries it has a very central position in our work. Our initiative to promote tourism and culture in Lisbon’s Praça do Comércio is a demonstration of the importance we attach to Portugal.
Could this first visit of the Chief Executive to Portugal have an impact on the promotion of Macao as a tourism destination?
M.H.S.F. – Yes, it will attract more attention to Macao. And that is why we are doing our part: we have the roadshow, the video mapping projection and a B2B seminar. There will also be an important announcement in Portugal by the World Tourism Organization and the Secretariat of the Global Tourism Economy Forum (GTEF), which will communicate the shape of the GTEF in Macau from now on.
To what extent can Macau also be a Portuguese-speaking tourism platform for the Greater Bay Area and inland China?
M.H.S.F. – First of all we have to help create a brand or a notion of what the Grand Bay is for the international markets. The concept is relatively new and many do not know this region. Only after that point can we start working on tours and itineraries. We want people, especially those coming from further afield, to come to Macau and take the opportunity to visit other parts of the Greater Bay Area. But first they have to get to know what’s on offer.
The president of the Chinese Tourism Association in Portugal, Yong Liang, highlighted the role that Macau can play in connecting Chinese tourists to Portugal. Do you agree with that opportunity?
M.H.S.F. – Yes, I agree. Portugal is still not working much in the Chinese market. Countries like Spain, Italy or France have already been working in that market for many years. Working together, Macau can help bring Chinese tourists to Portugal. Let’s say that Macau can introduce Portugal to China. By projecting Portuguese elements, Chinese tourists can get to know Portugal better. They need to understand the influence that Portugal has had in this part of China so that they can develop some curiosity and interest in visiting Portugal.
The Portuguese Association of Travel Agencies and Tourism has already informed us that it has been contacted by travel agency associations in Macau with an interest in forming a protocol in this area. It is a good opportunity to boost tourism in both directions.