* Feb revenue firmer than forecasts at $3.04 billion
* Analysts mixed on outlook for this year
* VIP volumes still a concern, macro issues to weigh
* New Sands China casino to open end April (Adds details)
By Farah Master
HONG KONG, March 1 (Reuters) - Gambling revenue in Macau, the world’s largest gambling destination, jumped 22.3 percent year on year in February, slightly ahead of forecasts and buoyed by a strong flow of gamblers from mainland China.
Government figures on Thursday showed that revenue for February totalled 24.3 billion patacas ($3.04 billion), slightly higher than analysts expectations for 24 billion patacas. One of the world’s fastest growing economies, Macau has been relatively insulated from global economic woes and has yet to see a significant slowdown in growth.
While gaming revenue in the former Portuguese colony reached $33.5 billion last year, many investors and analysts are pricing in a slowdown in growth from 42 percent in 2011 to 11-20 percent in 2012.
February’s number may put a more a positive spin on some forecasts.
“The momentum is still there. If you look at February, there are only 29 days and no public holidays. The postings are surprisingly good,” said Teng Yee Tan, analyst at CIMB Securities in Hong Kong.
Analysts had started to tune down their expectations in August last year, Tan said, adding that February’s figure may prompt some to revise up their yearly forecast.
Macro risks in China, including slowing economic growth and curtailed private lending due to rising bad debts, remain a key concern for Macau’s lucrative VIP segment, which depends largely on the availability of private credit.
“If you look deeper into the figures, they are not as perhaps buoyant as the headline figures appear,” said RBS analyst Philip Tulk in Hong Kong. He said it was important to see whether the growth in rolling volumes from the credit heavy VIP sector remained as strong.
Multi-billion dollar gaming companies including Las Vegas Sands Corp, Sands China Ltd and Melco Crown Entertainment Ltd, posted solid earnings in 2011, benefitting from a shift of gamblers towards Macau’s developing Cotai strip where they have properties.
Macau’s government is encouraging the development of more leisure and family focused properties on Cotai, a reclaimed strip of land ten minutes drive from the enclave’s crammed peninsula where most of its casinos are based.
Growth in mass market visitors is expected to overtake the more volatile VIP segment for the first time this year with analysts expecting resilient spending from China’s emerging middle class.
The majority of visitors to Macau still come from neighbouring Guangdong province, but analysts say improvements in transport and infrastructure in the coming year will help to penetrate deeper into China’s interior.
Sands China, controlled by gaming magnate Sheldon Adelson, is set to open a new $4 billion casino next to its existing Venetian property at the end of April, drawing the centre of gravity further towards the Cotai strip.
The $30 billion firm ended a 10-year contract with Canada’s Cirque du Soleil in February after three years of lacklustre ticket sales, highlighting the challenges for operators in luring gamblers away from baccarat tables.
Melco Crown has been more successful at drawing visitors to its House of Dancing Water show. Yet Macau’s non-gaming revenue still trails far behind that of Las Vegas, something the government is trying to change by promoting cultural activities. (Editing by Chris Lewis)