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Macao, like Hong Kong, is a Special Administrative Region of China, located off the southern coast. It covers 11 square miles (29 sq. km). It is just off the coast of the Guangdong province of China, and has a coastline along the South China Sea. The country is often also referred to as Macau, but the spellings are generally interchangeable in international usage.
The region was first settled around the 4th millennia BCE, but not a great deal is known about these early settlements. It was assimilated into various Chinese city states in the 1st millennia BCE, and when the Qin dynasty unified China in the 2nd century BCE, it was included in the empire. During this period the region was used mostly as a stop-over point by traders and travelers, with few, if any, permanent settlements.
In the 13th century, when the Mongols invaded China, a large number of refugees from the Song dynasty fled to Macao and established a new home there. Over the next few centuries the area grew slightly and became an important regional trading post, but remained relatively small and undeveloped.
In the 16th century the Portuguese arrived on Macao, seeing it as a good location to expand their regional trading empire. They leased the island from the Chinese, with the island remaining under sovereign China, but with the Portuguese having full use of the land. It grew to be an important point of trade, particularly in the lucrative trade between China and Japan, facilitated by the Portuguese. The island was attacked a number of times by the Dutch in the early-17th century, but these attacks were all successfully repelled, ultimately leading to a strengthening of the area's defenses.
When Japan shut out the West in the mid-17th century, Macao’s lucrative shipping industry suffered immensely. When China later opened trade to a number of other Western powers, it suffered even more. The region underwent a period of rapid decline, reaching its nadir in the mid-19th century when the British acquired Hong Kong, and became a dominant trading power in the region.
In 1849 the Portuguese declared the area to be independent of China and stopped paying rent. Portugal also expanded the territory around this time, acquiring a number of smaller nearby islands. During World War II Macao remained a neutral port, and for a short time enjoyed an economic boom, although it settled down soon after.
In 1974, Portugal had its Carnation Revolution, and gave up all of its territories throughout the world. With the installment of the new government, Portugal immediately entered into negotiations with China to arrange a peaceful transfer of power over the island. A treaty was finally arranged in the late-1980s, and the territory entered a transitional period, during which it was still administered by Portugal. In 1999 control was transferred to China, with the provision that the region would continue to be administered in much the same way for at least the next 50 years, an arrangement not unlike that which accompanied the British transfer of power in Hong Kong. As a result, Macao now enjoys a special status, having virtual autonomy over domestic and economic matters.
In recent years Macao has become a tourist paradise, particularly for Asian tourists. The region features a number of historical points of interest, such as the 60 foot (20 m) white jade statue of the goddess A-Ma, various Portuguese chapels and churches, and fortresses from the 16th and 17th centuries. But what it is most known for these days are its many casinos and entertainment spots, which have led to it being described as the Las Vegas of Asia.
Flights arrive daily in Macao from most European hubs via Hong Kong, and more direct flights are opening every day. It is also tightly linked with Hong Kong via the sea, with ferries, jetfoils, and boats crossing constantly. Travel to mainland China is also available via sea or plane.