Macau Mulls New Digital Currency Plans as Casinos Continue Post-Pandemic Recovery

  • Ho Iat Seng said Macau is in discussions with China’s central bank regarding a virtual currency
  • Casino junkets have expressed opposition as analysts warn of the elimination of intermediaries
  • Bernstein analysts have predicted growth in mass-market gambling, with easy access to funds
  • Macau’s CE is also in discussions regarding easing testing restrictions for vaccinated visitors
A digital yuan symbol
Macau CE Ho Iat Seng outlined the government’s intentions to implement a virtual currency, which could eventually see gamblers pay for casino chips with digital yuan. [Image: Shutterstock.com]

Modernizing the gambling hub

In the future, Macau law could require gamblers to pay for casino chips with a virtual currency. According to the jurisdiction’s chief executive (CE) Ho Iat Seng, the government is mulling plans which would see the implementation of a digital yuan.

The executive spoke with lawmakers while presenting at the Legislative Assembly on Tuesday. During the meeting, he said that Macau’s government will work with China’s central bank to “study the feasibility of issuing a digital currency.”

a virtual currency will help the region combat money laundering and tax evasion

Ho Iat Seng argued that a virtual currency will help the region combat money laundering and tax evasion. He also noted the increased prevalence of digital funds in gambling markets across the globe. Several cities in mainland China have already introduced digital yuan, but Macau has not yet published any formal implementation plans.

The news comes as Macau casinos continue their slow recovery following the COVID-19 outbreak. Since March last year, restrictions to travel and declining VIP business led to overall low gambling revenue figures, which are only starting to rebound this quarter.

Bad news for casino junkets

As reported by Bloomberg News, some junket operators have expressed opposition to the chief executive’s plans. They warned that a government-controlled virtual currency could spell the end for Macau’s gambling industry, already hampered by the pandemic crisis.

the ability to purchase casino chips through digital yuan would eliminate the need for intermediaries

Meanwhile, analysts have yet to fully evaluate the impact a virtual currency might have. In a recent note, Sanford C. Bernstein analysts predicted that going virtual could wipe out Macau’s junket operators. They argued that the ability to purchase casino chips through digital yuan would eliminate the need for intermediaries. 

Junkets businesses act as middlemen for VIP Chinese gamblers, organizing on their behalf travel arrangements to get to play at a particular casino facility.

While this might prove detrimental to the industry in the short term, Bernstein analysts believe casinos will ultimately benefit from easier access to money. This is particularly true for Macau’s mass market, which has become increasingly dominant over the past year. In Q4 2020, mass-market share accounted for 75% of gross gaming revenue. 

A digital yuan would reduce Macau’s reliance on payment apps such as WeChatPay and Alipay. It could also replace the Macau Pataca as the jurisdiction’s main currency. In its note, the Bernstein brokerage said the elimination of a need for currency conversion would “simplify the process and not subject customers to f/x transaction costs.”

COVID-19 test discussions underway

Ho Iat Seng also announced on Tuesday that Macau is in discussions with mainland China regarding the easing of some pandemic restrictions for visiting gamblers. The government intends to remove a negative virus test requirement for any visitors, as long as they have received both of their COVID-19 vaccinations.

individuals could earn an exemption from tests if they receive two doses of the vaccine and produce antibodies after 14 days

“We are discussing with the mainland government to reach mutual recognition of COVID-19 vaccines, at least with Guangdong Province,” Ho Iat Seng explained. He said individuals could earn an exemption from tests if they receive two doses of the vaccine and produce antibodies after 14 days.

The executive also revealed that Beijing is yet to make a decision regarding the resumption of electronic Individual Visit Scheme applications. Mainland China suspended the process in January 2020, resulting in a substantial decline in Macau visitors last year. This added to the casinos’ woes as gross gaming revenue dropped to $7.53bn for 2020, down 79%.