Preparing in Macau for the start of the Games, our Olympic insider discovers hidden construction opportunities
Tomorrow, weather and flights permitting, it's my turn to make the short flight from Macau to Beijing to begin my third Olympic journey (after Barcelona in 1992 and Athens four years ago). When I last made this flight in May, it was over a region just devastated by the dreadful earthquake that had happened just two days previously. Tonight, this volatile climatic zone is now throwing up a grade three typhoon warning as a storm rages a few hundred kilometres out at sea. Let's hope that all our athletes get to their starting lines in Beijing, safe and sound.
A strategic stronghold at the mouth of the Pearl River, Macau was granted to the Portuguese by a grateful mid-16th-century Chinese emperor in return for their help in controlling piracy. It came back to China as a key plank in their “one nation, two systems” policy in 1999 and by the time the Olympics start in Beijing it will have been the temporary home of most UK athletes and their support staff prior to the Games. It provides just the right environmental conditions and time zone for our athletes to acclimatise away from the manic, stressful conditions of Beijing.
The fencing team of 14 athletes, sparring partners and coaches are training at the Macau Dome, an elliptical glass and steel-framed structure built on Cotai, the large strip of reclaimed land that joins together the formerly separate islands of Taipa and Coloane. Designed by local architect Eddie Wong & Associates and costing around £35m, the 4,200m2 Dome has dominated the skyline by Macau's international airport since it was completed in 2004, initially to be the main venue for the East Asian Games.
But this building - looking like a giant silver beetle - has now been eclipsed by the £1bn Venetian Resort, which has gone from design concept to finished item inside two years. At its peak, 20,000 workers were on site to build this immense project, which includes a 3,000-room hotel, a major arena and separate theatre, enormous casinos and a 93,000m2 shopping precinct that is a replica of Venice, complete with gondoliers patrolling a network of indoor canals under the sunniest of late-afternoon blue skies (painted very effectively onto the ceiling).
This is just the first of 20 new resort hotels due to be constructed on Cotai over the next few years, beginning with the £358m Wynn, going up right next door to the Dome. Macau has already outstripped the Las Vegas Strip for its combined gambling revenues and recently overtook the whole state of Nevada.
It seems that the strong performance by UK consultants in China has not extended to the burgeoning construction and infrastructure market in Macau. Over dinner recently, the honorary consul told me that not enough British engineers and designers were working in Macau and he felt that there was scope for them to win more long-term work in the region.
There is certainly plenty of bustling construction activity all around, and rising real estate prices are much more in evidence than is the credit crunch in this former colony that looks well set to become the gambling capital of the world. Already, its population of around 450,000 hosts more than 20 million visitors a year. With 5 billion people within a three-hour flight (compared with only 250,000 that close to Vegas), this is a growth trajectory that is far from finished.
Not that the small group of visitors I'm responsible for are to be seen anywhere near a gaming room! These are strictly off limits and, anyway, busy athletes training for several hours a day have only enough energy in reserve to eat and sleep.
Keeping temptation firmly out of sight, as well as mind, the British team has taken residence for a month in the Westin resort, situated at the far end of Coloane island, looking out over the South China Seas. The building glut will never get this far, since no further development is allowed on Coloanne - the so-called “green lung of Macau”.
Graham Watts is performance director of British fencing and CEO of the Construction Industry Council.