Macau said Saturday it has renewed the licences of its six major casino operators, with the city aiming for terms that would help diversify its economy away from gambling.

The former Portuguese colony is the only territory in China where casinos are allowed, and it issues just six operating concessions for a multi-billion-dollar industry that, until the pandemic hit, was bigger than Las Vegas.

The six current operators -- including the subsidiaries of Las Vegas giants MGM, Wynn and Sands -- had submitted renewal applications but a firm linked with Malaysian gaming and resorts giant Genting challenged the long-running oligopoly with a surprise bid.

That attempt failed, however, as Macau's leader Ho Iat-seng announced that the existing licence holders have been granted provisional concessions.

"Development of non-gaming businesses is the most important factor" in the government's decision, Andre Cheong, Macau's administration and justice minister, told reporters.

He did not provide details about what licence holders would be required to invest and where.

The government said it will negotiate details with the six operators and the new licences will take effect from the beginning of next year.

Macau has long been keen to diversify away from gambling into tourism and leisure.

The city's casinos were battered by pandemic-era restrictions that drove away the mainland Chinese gamblers who made up the vast majority of customers.

"The source of our tourists is too concentrated," Cheong said Saturday, describing the situation as "not healthy".

Gross gaming revenue was down 98 percent from pre-pandemic levels and fell to a record low in July, officials earlier announced.

- Scrutiny and reform -

Even if pandemic measures are fully lifted, it is unlikely Macau's casinos will see a return to their headiest, freewheeling days.

RTL

Macau gambling revenue / © AFP/File

Chinese President Xi Jinping has spearheaded an anti-corruption campaign that has seen increased scrutiny of the high rollers and officials who travel to gamble in Macau, where cases of money laundering are common.

For decades, Macau's gaming industry was run as a monopoly by casino magnate Stanley Ho, but in 2002 more operators were brought in and issued 20-year concessions as part of a liberalisation effort.

In January, authorities slashed the concession period of gaming licences to 10 years and unveiled regulations seeking to increase local ownership and government supervision.

Those factors did not deter the bid from GMM, a company controlled by Malaysian tycoon and Genting chairman Lim Kok Thay.

Best known for its resort in the Malaysian highlands, Genting also operates in Las Vegas and Singapore. It backed a ski resort in China that hosted this year's Winter Olympics.