Macau Police Bust Operation That Smuggled Chinese Gamblers Into City

  • Smuggling operation included one Macau casino worker
  • Gambling clients were charged $3,000-$4,000 to be snuck into city
  • Travel between China and Macau is largely closed because of the pandemic
Macau nighttime cityscape
Macau police have arrested several people involved in smuggling Chinese residents across the border so that they could gamble in Macau’s casinos. [Image: Shutterstock.com]

Skirting pandemic travel restrictions

Macau Judiciary Police arrested three people over the weekend on suspicion of people-smuggling. Fortunately, the operation is not as nightmarish as it might initially sound, as the Chinese “clients” were ushered across the border so that they could gamble.

On Monday, Judiciary Police spokesman Chan Wun Man said that authorities in Zhuhai, Guangdong province tipped them off, leading to the Saturday arrests. Taken into custody were a 31-year-old Macau man who worked in one of the city’s casinos, a 34-year-old man who had overstayed his travel visa, and a 56-year-old woman from China who was attempting to enter Macau illegally. Five other accomplices were also arrested in Zhuhai.

charged each client from CNY22,000 (US$3,143) to CNY30,000 (US$4,285)

Along with the suspects, three other people, allegedly clients of the smugglers, were apprehended. They allegedly admitted to law enforcement officials that they were in Macau to gamble and “confessed that they were avoiding the COVID-19 prevention measures.”

Police believe that the people-smuggling operation had been going on for at least a month. The suspects charged each client from CNY22,000 (US$3,143) to CNY30,000 (US$4,285) to sneak them into Macau so they could access the casinos.

Individual Visit Scheme currently suspended

China used to have draconian laws for travel between the Chinese mainland and the special administrative regions of Macau and Hong Kong. Prior to 2003, Chinese mainland residents could only travel to either city on group tours or with business visas.

Exactly 17 years ago, on July 28, 2003, the Individual Visit Scheme (IVS) was launched, allowing people from China to visit Macau and Hong Kong on an individual basis. The scheme began with ten cities, eventually expanding to 49 cities throughout China. In just over three months from when IVS began, China issued 450,000 visas. In 2019, 10.6 million of Macau’s 32.6 million tourists entered the region via an IVS visa.

China suspended the IVS in late January

To prevent the spread of COVID-19, however, China suspended the IVS in late January, issuing no new travel visas. Tour groups to Macau were paused, as well. Because of the severe travel restrictions this year, people-smuggling operations have developed to assist Chinese residents to gain access to Macau casinos.

As goes virus, so goes travel

If there is a bright spot for Macau right now, it is that regional travel restrictions are slowly being lifted. Starting at the end of March, residents of the neighboring Guangdong province had to quarantine themselves for 14 days upon returning from Macau. On July 15, that requirement expired, though travelers must still be tested for COVID-19 before going to Macau. As mentioned, there are still no new visas being issued under IVS, so only those with existing, valid visas can travel to and from Macau.

Macau is also working with Hong Kong on a “health passport” system to expedite the travel process between the two cities. Currently, visitors between each region must undergo a two-week quarantine; the new health passport would eliminate this requirement. Though it did look like the system might have been ready to launch earlier this month, Hong Kong officials said they needed more time to review everything.

Macau’s economy, which is almost entirely reliant on tourism and gambling, as been devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic. In May, just 16,133 people visited the city, compared to 4 million in May 2019. Similarly, hotel occupancy dropped over 90%. June’s gross gaming revenue was nearly non-existent, plummeting 97% from last year.