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Tiny Macao, free of Peking shadow, is suddenly bustling

Until quite recently, tourist industry officials in this tiny Portuguese territory rather sheepishly had to lure visitors over from bustling Hong Kong with the promise of little more than peace and quiet. Macao did, in fact, retain the quaint and a bit sleepy mood of an overseas colony, which it had been for some 400 years.

But almost overnight, that's all changed. Trishaw drivers can no longer snooze in the afternoon sun; there's far too much noise and activity from building construction that is taking place in virtually every block. The tree-lined boulevards are seeing their first traffic jams.

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"We used to say that Macao was manana -- tomorrow," says Eduardo Travares da Silva, director of the Macao Business Center. "Now the pace is different; we say the pace demands that things be done not tomorrow or today but yesterday." The center is a private endeavor to assist foreign investors to get a foothold in Macao. The government of Macao backs outside interests, as well. "If your proposition is sound, the government welcomes you," Mr. da Silva says.

The event credited almost without exception for the wave of prosperity and the almost unprecedented level of investment in this territory is simply political stability. And that condition flows from an event almost unnoticed by the best of the business world just about one year ago.

Then the People's Republic of China established diplomatic relations with Portugal and, in the process, made a simple but extremely significant statement about this territory, which sits on a peninsula of South China. The Peking authorities almost casually stated that Macao is Chinese territory with a Portuguese administration.

That may not have meant much to outsiders, but to the Macanese, who knew that China could literally by snapping its fingers take control of the six square miles of land and its population of some 400,000, most of whom are Chinese, it clearly meant acceptance by Peking of the status quo. As with nearby Hong Kong, leaving the territory alone suited the best interests of the mainland government; fear of internal unrest or takeover virtually evaporated overnight.

Since then, Macao has enjoyed what the Chinese call "fat choi" -- prosperity, good fortune. Hotel construction, which had been at a virtual standstill for years, has taken off. There had been only two hotels with accommodations up to international standards, but despite growing tourism coming over from Hong Kong, no one wanted to risk capital. That certainly has changed.

The China Travel Service, Peking's official tourism agency, led the parade by opening the Metropole Hotel in the heart of the city, with 109 rooms, this past April. That's the communist regime's only hotel in the West. Affixed to the side of a hill just above the hydrofoil and ferryboat landing is a sign announcing the forthcoming Ramada Hotel; Hyatt also has plans to build. In all, five new hotels are under construction; an existing one plans a 600-room expansion; and insiders expect announcements soon involving three more properties.

Macao has three casinos; however, gambling is not considered the main attraction of the territory for tourists.

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Says Brian Cuthbertson of the Macao Tourist Information Bureau, "There is an obvious recognition by the international business community that Macao is now a viable destination." Giving tourism a major boost, however, is yet another decision by China. Almost without advance notice, it opened its border to foreigners at Macao. Since the Communists came to power in 1949, the little frontier crossing was restricted only to such traffic as the movement of fresh produce and rice desperately needed by Macao.

But then a year ago, Peking without any fanfare began to admit tourists for one-day excursions into neighboring Zhongshan County. The chance to actually travel to China, even if only for a day sojourn, was so appealing to Americans that their visits to Macao as the point of entry reached a new high this year. For the first eight months of 1980, American travel to Macao was up 8.5 percent at a time when the territory's overall tourism flow was off.

While tourism represents Macao's second-biggest source of income, the manufacturing of textile goods remains first. Using imported fabrics, Macao's Chinese labor turns out a variety of products exported mainly to North America and West Europe. And local businessmen would like to see industry diversified, some to include the assembly of such products as transistor radios and calculators.

Macao labor still lacks the capacity to do much more than merely assemble imported components, but that first step is eagerly sought by local interests. Steps are already well under way to develop a huge area for industry, housing, and commercial activities. It would involve reclaiming land from the sea just north of the ship landings and, quite curiously, an agency of the Chinese government is a prime mover in that $500 million, 10-year integrated development.

It wasn't too long ago that the territory's tallest structure was 12 stories high. Now a complex of 29 story apartment buildings to accommodate 4,000 families is going up on Taipa Island, which is connected to Macao by a 1.6 -mile-long bridge. And the inevitable has recently taken place: the familiar cry of traditionalists who resent all the activity and construction and fear a loss of the old colonial charm that was the old Macao.

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