A few years ago, a bunch of female colleagues asked me to join them for a jaunt to Las Vegas. As I had never been to Vegas, wasn't dating anyone, and wasn't totally and completely stupid, I jumped at the chance. Between cheap Spring Break flights and shared hotel rooms, the trip didn't really cost all that much, and we had a lot of fun.
Julie (one of the women I went with) steadfastly refused to marry and subsequently divorce me (I was hoping to get the first marriage out of the way, but, alas...). Instead of tying the knot, I blew a little bit of money on the slot machines, played a couple of hands of blackjack, and ended up more or less breaking even.
For me, though, the real draw of Vegas was its outrageousness -- the insanely huge casinos, the ridiculous displays of wealth, and the surprisingly cheap prime rib. While gambling is all well and good, you can't really see the town from a seat at a gaming table. And I didn't just see the town, I painted it red, with the style and panache that only an impoverished college student can muster!
I was not the only person who went in search of Vegas' other delights. In fact, statistics show that the city that was built on games of chance now only draws 41% of its income from gambling, a 17% drop from 1990. This isn't too hard to understand; after all, between Indian casinos and off-shore betting sites, there are numerous other opportunities for people to blow their money on long-shots.
While Vegas' shift from a gambling mecca to an entertainment and shopping capital has been a boon for the local economy, the city is now seeing the downside to its expansion. The old, gambling-based Las Vegas used to be relatively immune to the ravages of recession, but its broader array of attractions have ended up binding it much more closely to the overall economy. The decline in easy credit, which helped insulate the city from previous recessions, has dried up, and the rising prices of food and gas have all conspired to keep visitors away. Room occupancy rates are down to record lows, even as prices for hotel rooms have dropped precipitously. Gambling revenue is down 4% from a year ago. Meanwhile, huge building projects sit idle as many casinos wait to see which way the wind will blow.
In the meantime, Vegas has played to its strengths, adapting itself to fit the challenges of the time. It's positioning itself as a cheap shopping destination for overseas visitors, who have discovered that consumer goods are incredibly inexpensive in the beleaguered city. Simultaneously, it's played itself up as an irresponsible getaway, the perfect place to go on a moment's notice. Their current ad campaign, "Do it without thinking!," plays into the city's reputation as a refuge. In a stroke of genius, the recent film What Happens in Vegas uses that very irresponsibility as a plot point.
All things considered, this might be the perfect time for a city that promises an escape from day-to-day worries. Viva Las Vegas!
Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and all-around cheapskate. He likes the nightlife, he likes to boogie...
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