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Opinion: Macao can forget about being an international destination until it fixes its taxi problem

There’s no point luring overseas visitors to the territory if they can’t get around when they arrive. Gaming consultant and Macao resident Alidad Tash has solutions to an issue that’s holding Macao back.

The views and opinions expressed on this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Macao News.




Less than 1 minute Minutes




Less than 1 minute Minutes

Macao’s government says it wants to increase the number of foreign visitors, who presently make up less than four percent of all arrivals in the territory.

But in its failure to think through the visitor experience, the government is giving those visitors another message: “You’re on your own.”

How else can you describe the deflating experience of arriving at the airport at 10 pm, only to be greeted by a shuttered information counter and a 45-minute wait for a taxi to take you on a mere 10-minute ride to your hotel?

Exacerbating this is the typically gruff Macao taxi driver, sitting in a vehicle that reeks of cigarette smoke and which offers no seatbelts. He may or may not know the name of your hotel and may, or may not, help with your luggage.

It doesn’t get any better the next morning. You explore the Historic Centre, perhaps, then decide to have lunch back at your hotel. You reach for your phone only to realise, bafflingly, that neither Uber nor Grab operate in Macao. You look for a taxi but find that there are none. As a visitor, you’d rather not grapple with the intricacies (and crowded single deckers) of the local bus system – never mind that bus stops are written in Chinese or Portuguese, and list as their destinations roads named for a Portuguese Colonel or Governor, instead of a hotel or casino.

In effect, you are marooned. With the mercury hitting 34℃ or more, walking back to your hotel could result in heatstroke. Eventually, you stumble across a taxi rank. If it’s a weekend, or at a time when taxi drivers change shifts, the queue is enormous. Again, you wait 45 minutes for what should be a short ride. Bem vindo a Macau.

Taxis in Macao

The government needs to understand this: Every minute that a visitor spends in a taxi queue is a minute not spent shopping, dining, gambling, or otherwise supporting the local economy.

Suppose we manage to cut down the total taxi queue wait times by a combined hour for each passenger a day? That translates to an extra hour in visitor-spend a day, and the need for fewer overall visitors. 

In other words, when you’ve got grumpy tourists waiting in long queues all day, they lose, businesses lose, the government loses, the image of Macao loses, while only the taxi drivers and their powerful owners win.

The government’s job is to do the right thing for all of Macao, not just the powerful taxi lobby.

The solution to many of Macao’s tourism-related issues does not require any of the 108 billion patacas in committed investments by the six gaming companies. All that’s needed instead is a combination of leadership, foresight, and common sense. That’s the good news.

The bad? We’re lacking in all three. 

Instead of leading, the government has been caught off guard by the post-pandemic surge in visitors. 

Instead of having foresight, the government failed to realise that 400 of Macao’s 1,800 taxi licences (an already insufficient number) would expire during the pandemic, meaning there are fewer taxis now than in early 2020. 

As for common sense, well, you can probably answer that for yourself.

The authorities haven’t been totally inactive with the taxi sector. The installation of GPS and video recording devices, and imposing harsher penalties on repeat offenders, were able to cause a “sharp drop in overcharging, refusing hire and other ruses.” 

Unfortunately, this early victory went to the government‘s head, and it has done little to fix many of the remaining issues that continue to affect tourists and Macao’s reputation. 

What can be done?

Here are the chief problems with Macao’s taxi ecosystem, along with solutions.

Problem #1: There aren’t enough taxi licences, not by a long shot 

There are fewer than 1,400 taxi licences in Macao, a number that has decreased by 400 from three years ago and is expected to reduce to 1,300 this year as licences continue to expire. 

Singapore, which has 14,000 standard taxis and 72,600 licensed ride-share vehicles, has 60 times the number of vehicles for hire than Macao, despite having just 8 times the population and half the number of visitors.

Hong Kong has 18,200 taxis – that’s 13 times more than Macao. But it has less than 11 times the population Macao does and not even twice the number of visitors. It also has one of the best mass transit systems in the world and permits Uber to operate.

Solution: Macao should add another 1,000 taxi licences right away. In the medium term, it should add even more. 

Problem #2: Macao does not permit ride-sharing services

Uber was available in Macao for a few years, but the government fought it hard (issuing more than 10 million patacas in fines) and eventually shut it down. It wasn’t the only city to do this, but whereas other municipal governments eventually relented and saw the benefits of Uber and other ride-sharing companies, the Macao government has doggedly stuck to its guns, citing safety concerns and legality issues.

Many suspect that it was looking out for the taxi lobby (of which more below). At any rate, it is hard to believe that Macao somehow cares more for passenger safety than Singapore, the ultimate nanny state, which has issued 72,600 ride-sharing licences.  

Solution: We need to admit we were wrong in banning ride-sharing, which is perfectly suited to compact Macao. We must reintroduce it – whether from Uber, Lyft, Didi, Grab, or Ryde – with all the appropriate regulations, including routine vehicle inspections, cameras and GPS devices, insurance coverage, background checks, and driver training. Standard taxi drivers can also be protected by giving them a monopoly on street pick-ups and taxi stands.  

Problem #3: The taxi lobby’s interests are coming before Macao’s

The taxi drivers’ association in Macao is very vocal. It complains every time the government attempts to make changes and perceives any competition as a threat. Drivers do not want to work on weekends, which is understandable, yet they don’t want anyone else to do so either.

The government has been able to introduce some accountability, but all this has done is  improve the “service” from terrible to bad. There is still a long way to go. The vested interests of the taxi industry are costing Macao a lot of money. 

Solution: Transport officials need to stop cowering in the face of taxi lobbyists. They need to balance the loud complaints from the taxi drivers against the silent, seething dissatisfaction of visitors who do not have a voice.

Problem #4: Taxis give visitors a terrible first and last impression of Macao

Name another major tourist destination which has such embarrassingly long wait times at airports. Can you imagine Hong Kong, Lisbon, or Los Angeles with such poor planning? As locals, we have been browbeaten into accepting 30 or 45-minute waits as normal, but visitors do not feel the same way. 

We have no round-the-clock information booth informing travellers about their transport options. No one tells them that the Light Rapid Transit is quite often the fastest way to get them to Cotai, if that’s where their hotel lies. Nobody tells them about estimated waiting times for taxis, or about bus schedules. Taxis have little incentive to pick passengers up from the airport, so are few and far between. 

Departure is just as bad. Sunday evening taxi queues make travellers anxious about missing their flights or ferries. By the time they’re able to finally flag down a taxi, they’re late for their departures, souring their memory of Macao.  

Solution: Impose a 25 patacas surcharge for rides to and from the airport in addition to the standard fare, and an extra 15 patacas for ferry terminals. This will motivate the taxi drivers to pick up passengers. At first glance, the fee may seem excessive, but consider that a typical hotel costs 1,500 patacas a night, of which another 5 percent, or 75 patacas is tacked on as taxes. The 25 patacas suddenly appear small in comparison. The integrated resort operators could also be made to provide a round-the-clock airport to Cotai (and even an airport to peninsula) shuttle bus.

Problem #5: Drivers don’t want to work weekends 

Taxi drivers have families too, so it is reasonable for them to want free time on the weekends, when their spouses are off work and kids have a break from school. 

But weekends are also a time of high demand.

We need to learn from the Singaporean example. Years ago, the Lion City introduced rules mandating cab companies to keep 85 percent of their vehicles on the road during peak periods.

To help implement this, Singapore introduced dynamic pricing, allowing taxi drivers to charge a higher fare during weekends (as well as the busiest weekday hours). This commonsense solution resulted in a win-win situation for passengers and drivers. Singapore is years ahead of Macao in planning and implementation. There is no shame in admitting this, and trying to close the gap. 

Solution: Implement dynamic pricing, Singapore-style. That will take time to achieve, technologically, so in the interim impose a 10 pataca surcharge for weekend trips.

Our integrated resorts are world-class, as are our tourist attractions and cuisine, but until our transport shortcomings are resolved, we may as well stop chasing overseas tourists. 

All they want is a convenient way of getting around the city (and that doesn’t mean the bus), so that they can spend their money and boost our economy.

It’s time we helped them do it.  

The views and opinions expressed on this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Macao News.

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