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Inside gaming: Trying times loom for Sands in Macau

4 August 2008

MACAO -- Visa restrictions imposed by the Chinese government that curtail mass-market visitation to Macau hurt Las Vegas Sands Corp. more than any other casino operator.

But did Beijing act deliberately to punish Las Vegas Sands?

Some observers speculate Chinese leaders are not happy the Beijing government's inner workings were aired in a Las Vegas courtroom last spring during Hong Kong businessman Richard Suen's six-week civil trial against Las Vegas Sands.

The company's Venetian Macau, with 3,000 hotel rooms and a 546,000-square-foot casino, needs the casual Chinese visitor from Macau's neighboring provinces to supplement its sizable high-end, junket-fueled customer base. The new travel policies went into effect Friday and could slice mass-market visits to Macau in half.

The relationship between Las Vegas Sands executives and the Chinese government had been warm. The Adelson Center in Beijing, built by Sands Chairman Sheldon Adelson, has meeting and conference facilities to promote dealings between China and U.S. businesses. But since the trial ended, the friendship may have cooled.

Jurors who awarded Suen a $43.8 million verdict said they believed testimony that Beijing leaders influenced Macau officials to give Las Vegas Sands a gaming license in 2002.

Chinese authorities also weren't thrilled testimony covered a July 2001 phone call between Adelson and then-House Majority Whip Tom DeLay. The conversation may have killed a congressional effort to stop China from winning the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, which begin Friday in Beijing. Sands officials had lobbyists publicize their efforts on behalf of the Chinese Olympics cause.

Las Vegas Sands tried to keep testimony in the trial hidden. District Judge Michelle Leavitt, however, tossed out a motion to bar media from the courtroom. During his six days on the witness stand, Las Vegas Sands President Bill Weidner downplayed the help with the Olympics. "It became an urban legend that we created," he said.

Macau gaming officials are also feeling the heat. Jorge Oliveira, commissioner of legal affairs for the Macau Gaming Commission, who testified over two days for Las Vegas Sands, has backed away from his courtroom comments. Macau journalists and government officials are examining his testimony.

The visa restrictions are in their early stages. It's unclear how much they will cut into Las Vegas Sands' earnings.

Deutsche Bank gaming analyst Bill Lerner said some potential customers use business visas to circumvent restraints. Many Chinese also have multiple identification cards from both the mainland and Hong Kong.