The pandemic has lifted tourist pressure in Macau, which in 2019 received twice as many visitors from Venice, but experts point out differences between the two cities, both UNESCO world heritage sites, starting with the risks for heritage.
Last year, around 40 million tourists visited the former territory under Portuguese administration, with an area of 33 square kilometers – more than Paris (38 million), Venice (20) or Portugal (27 million).
In Macau, before the health crisis, an average of 1.2 tourists entered every second – more than 70 per minute, 4,500 every hour, about 109,000 per day.
The cartoonist Rodrigo de Matos, who collaborates with the newspaper Ponto Final and the weekly Expresso, illustrated the floods in a 2017 cartoon: a can of sardines with the brand “Macau”. “Before the covid, it was everyday life, mainly in the city center: there were areas where it was practically impossible for a person to walk, it was reminiscent of a disco,” he recalls.
Living in the territory since 2009, the cartoonist had never seen “the city so empty”, except during “the occasional typhoon”, and believes that it “improved the quality of life” of the residents. “We take the opportunity to see some parts of the city that we don’t normally go to, due to the flood of people. For those who didn’t know the historic center, it’s the ideal time”.
Those who walk these days find an empty city, from the historic center left by the Portuguese to the existing 40 casinos.
The president of the International Council of Portuguese Language Architects (CIALP), Rui Leão, who arrived in the territory in the late 1970s, criticizes the enormous transformation of the city since the liberalization of the gaming industry in 2002.
“In recent years we have been subjected to an excess [of tourists] that is truly distressing”, with consequences “in everything”: “there are no more cafes or neighborhood grocery stores” in the historic center, he exemplifies.
The complaints are the same as those in Venice or Barcelona, and, more recently, Lisbon: gentrification, rising real estate prices, pollution, degradation of monuments.
But if Macau suffers from equal tourist pressure, “the situation is different”, defends Leão. “The tourist who goes to Venice or Lisbon goes there because of the heritage, the architecture, the city itself”, while in Macau “the people come because of the casinos”, he explains.
For that reason, “in Venice and Lisbon heritage is safeguarded, because it is very clear that without that heritage there is no tourism. In Macau, there is no such awareness: heritage can disappear, and it has disappeared”, he laments.
From the top of the staircase of the ruins of São Paulo, you can see the Grand Lisboa, the crown jewel of the former magnate Stanley Ho, in a territory where the casinos rival the authentic heritage left by the Portuguese.
“We have the Venetian, which is the imitation of Venice, the Parisian, with the imitation of the Eiffel tower, and we will have the Londoner”, points out the architect Maria José de Freitas, who has lived in Macau since 1997, two years before the handover to China.
For the doctoral student in Portuguese-influenced heritage, it is this “Disneyland species” that attracts “the thousands of tourists from China looking for a European atmosphere”, with visits to the historic center being nothing more than an appointment.
“They go through the ruins of São Paulo to take a photo and say ‘I was here’, they don’t even have time to read the signs”, he criticizes.
The visit nevertheless leaves marks on the historic center, registered as a World Heritage Site on July 15, 2005. “The ruins of São Paulo are constantly being visited by tourists, and buses and pollution, and all road traffic in the area, they are extremely harmful “, she stresses.
The architect points out that there is still no plan for the protection of the Portuguese legacy in Macau, foreseen in the heritage safeguard law of 2013, approved just eight years after enrollment in UNESCO.
Without legal guidelines, the heritage left by the Portuguese was quickly surrounded by real estate pressure, with the Government authorizing the construction of casinos on the peninsula and buildings to emerge around the protected area.
The most recent controversy involves Guia Lighthouse, the first lighthouse on the southeast coast of Asia, threatened by plans to build a 90-meter building.
The case led Associação Nova Macau to file a complaint with the Commission against Corruption, on July 23, a month after the Guia Lighthouse Safeguard Group complained to UNESCO.
In 2017, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee criticized the Macau Government for the “possible impact of high-rise developments on the landscapes of Farol da Guia and Colina da Penha”, warning that the lack of a heritage safeguard plan could put in jeopardy danger to their status.
For Rui Leão, the degradation does not seem easy to reverse, when 80% of Macau’s GDP comes from gambling revenues, the great tourist attraction.
“Any monofunctional economy is a place where there is not much debate”, laments the architect, considering that the territory risks losing what makes its difference: a heritage of five centuries, at the crossroads between east and west.
“This makes Macau not an alienated or unbearable place, like Doha [the capital of Qatar] or Dubai, where there may be a lot of money, but there is no world: they are ‘fake’ cities, made of nothing”, he defends.
Paula Telo Alves