UPDATE 1-Macau gambling revenue up 11.5 pct in February

Fri Mar 1, 2013 12:33am EST

* Revenue at high end of estimates

* March revenue expected to be flat

* Leadership handover may curb visitors

By Farah Master

HONG KONG, March 1 (Reuters) - Gambling revenue in Macau, the world's biggest gambling hub, rose 11.5 percent in February year-on-year, boosted by cash-rich gamblers that flooded the southern China enclave during a week-long holiday earlier in the month.

February's revenue, at 27.1 billion patacas ($3.39 billion), was at the top end of analyst forecasts for growth of between 9 and 11 percent.

Macau, a Portuguese colony until 1999, raked in $38 billion in annual gambling revenues last year. With a population of half a million, it is the only place in China where people can legally gamble in casinos.

The week-long Chinese New Year holiday saw almost 1 million visitors enter Macau, but volumes from so-called "whales" - VIP gamblers who spend 1 million yuan ($160,700) at a time - was muted with revenues largely generated from mass-market visitors, said casino executives.

The number of mass-market visitors is rapidly growing and supporting overall revenue growth. Made up of China's emerging middle class, the mass market is boosting casino operators like U.S. billionaire Sheldon Adelson's Sands China.

Appetite from VIP gamblers has shrunk since last year with Chinese authorities pressing Macau to step up scrutiny of money transfers as part of a broader move to combat corruption. The change in China's national leadership that begins next week is also likely to curtail the number of high-rolling VIP visitors to Macau in March.

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