As Hong Kong protesters were blocking roads and forcing shops to close, a record number of Chinese tourists were occupying the streets of Macau.

More than 750,000 mainland Chinese have poured into the world’s largest gambling center since the China National Day holidays known as Golden Week began Oct. 1, with growth accelerating to 17 percent over last year. The surge came as the Occupy Central pro-democracy movement pushed Hong Kong into its worst political crisis in decades and cut its rise in Golden Week visitors to 5.4 percent, compared with 16 percent last year.

“Occupy Central has boosted the retail market and brought more mainland Chinese to Macau,” said Lei Kuok Keong, who plans casino trips for high-rollers and is also vice chairman of the Macau Gaming Industry Frontline Workers union. “Some Hong Kong people who wanted to avoid the protests also came to Macau. That has helped boost the visitor numbers to casinos.”

That’s been a dose of relief for the former Portuguese colony, which is experiencing its worst slump in casino revenue in five years. President Xi Jinping’s nationwide graft crackdown has squeezed high-stakes gamblers, who account for more than 60 percent revenue in China’s only enclave of legal gambling.

Mass Market

Casino operators, such as Galaxy Entertainment Group Ltd. and Melco Crown Entertainment Ltd., are shifting their focus to China’s growing middle class. That means catering to couples, families and gamblers who bet thousands of yuan instead of millions, a “mass-market” strategy adopted long ago in Las Vegas. The trick has been drawing enough people to make up for the drop in high-rollers.

Take Jerry and Joycelyn Lu, who arrived in Macau from the eastern city of Nanjing with their two young children Saturday. The family expected to spend at least 30,000 yuan ($4,900), including a stay at the Sheraton and 8,800 yuan for a Tissot watch. Jerry Lu said he would only spend about 1,000 yuan in the casinos, a sum he had already lost.

“We are not very keen on gambling,” he said. “We would prefer to spend our money on dining and shopping.”

Luxury Shops

During a visit to four Macau casinos Oct. 6, tables with lower minimum bets had more gamblers than those with higher ones. Customers were scarce in the luxury shops at the Wynn Macau, with a few customers browsing Louis Vuitton bags and Jaeger-LeCoultre watches.

Similarly, the economy section of a Shun Tak ferry from Hong Kong was almost full while about two-thirds of the more expensive superclass seats were empty. Macau is located about 60 kilometers (40 miles) west of Hong Kong, roughly an hour’s journey by ferry.

This year, more than five times as many Golden Week visitors arrived in Macau directly from the mainland. That may help explain why the gaming hub’s traffic soared while Hong Kong’s fell.

“Macau has gradually become a tourism destination of its own because it offers shopping, dining and entertainment experiences, such as boxing, concerts and gambling,” Victor Yip, a Hong Kong-based analyst at UOB-Kay Hian Ltd., said yesterday by phone. “I would expect Macau to benefit from some travelers who avoided Hong Kong.”

Jewelry Sales

As major Hong Kong retail chains reported declines in holiday sales of as much as 50 percent, shops have fared better in Macau.

Chow Sang Sang Holdings International Ltd. saw sales at its five Macau jewelry stores rise more than 10 percent, with more than 90 percent of customers hailing from the mainland.

“Shoppers in Macau were more willing to spend compared to those in Hong Kong,” Dennis Lau, director of sales operations for Chow Sang Sang Jewellery Group, said by phone today. “Our Macau sales increase may be partly due to tourists avoiding Hong Kong amid protests.”

For some tourists, like Zhao, a businessman from the southeastern city of Xiamen, Macau offers something Hong Kong can’t match: casinos. He said he plans to spend more than 50,000 yuan eating Portuguese food, getting massages and gambling at places like SJM Holdings Ltd.’s Grand Lisboa.

“The protests don’t affect me at all,” said Zhao, who would give only his surname. “I have no plans to visit Hong Kong anyway.”

With assistance from Stephanie Wong in Hong Kong.

To contact the reporter on this story: Vinicy Chan in Hong Kong at To contact the editors responsible for this story: Stephanie Wong at Brendan Scott, Stephanie Wong, James Boxell.

Photo Credit: Umbrella Revolution takes over Hong Kong streets. Pasu Au Yeung / Flickr