History comes full circle: Marco Polo went to China in 1271. Today a Las Vegas resort simulates the canals of his hometown Venice. And in 2007 Las Vegas Sands Corp. will have Venetian gondoliers in China.

A 10.5 million-square-foot expansion opening next year will dwarf the company's existing Sands Macao, which opened last year in the old Portuguese colony now ruled by China. The $2 billion master-planned Cotai Strip will include convention facilities, hotels with 10,000 guest rooms, eight theaters with 20,000 live-entertainment seats and 850,000 square feet of retail space. By April, Sands had signed retailers for 115 of its 350 spots. Some stores at “canal level” where shoppers can get a good look at the gondolas will pay up to $400 per square foot in rent.

Las Vegas Sands sees Macao as the world's top emerging gaming market. Three billion people live within five hours by air. In a release, president and COO William Weidner modestly predicts that Macao can “become the gaming and leisure destination of choice for a significant part of the world's population.”

Existing jewelry retailer Enzo's 10,000-square- foot Macao store, which it calls the largest jewelry store in Asia, has seen “exponential” month-to-month sales increases, says its publicist. “The retail prospects are quite significant,” assesses frequent China visitor Haris Tajyar, managing partner with Investor Relations International of Los Angeles. “The consumer affluence level has increased substantially, especially on the east coast.”

Is Las Vegas Sands overreaching? Gaming revenue advanced 40 percent in 2004 but only 10 percent last year, reports the Washington Post. Severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, decimated travel in 2003. Could bird flu do the same?

Marco Polo stayed 24 years, but for most visitors Macao is a day trip. After their fleecing at the tables, will they want to shop — or take the ferry home?