Despite the worst economy in decades, tons of people are still heading to la playa, but we're not talking about the beach. By most accounts, the annual Burning Man get together, which started Monday in Nevada's Black Rock Desert, is showing no sign of feeling the economy's pinch. By the time the event ends on September 7, more than 48,000 "burners" -- on par with last year -- are expected to have spent some time in this dry lake bed, joining drumming circles, applying body paint, sampling mind-altering substances, and committing other acts of "radical self-expression."

The conferences business may be down nearly 30 percent (through May) in Las Vegas, America's convention capital, some 400 miles south. But Brian Kulpin, a spokesman for the Reno-Tahoe International Airport, the closest airport to the event, says burner traffic seems in keeping with last year. He expects up to 14,000 of them to fly into the airport in the next two days. "Our airport is packed with burners," he says. "Absolutely packed."
The event, which began more than two decades ago, has become something of an annual counter-culture pilgrimage, especially among the technorati. It's now a limited liability corporation, representing a $10-million business, according to Business 2.0 magazine. But it throws off millions more in air travel, hotel reservations, car rentals, food purchases and other expenses. "They are very good for our economy," says Kulpin. "They fill seats on our airplanes. They buy food in our stores."

Tickets aren't cheap for this year's event, which features an art theme focused on evolution. At the box office, they run $360, but they can cost less if purchased in advance. A call to the Burning Man press office was not immediately returned, with a message saying that officials had already left for "the beach." But anecdotal evidence suggests the ticket prices haven't deterred many.

Richard Curtis, who rents recreational vehicles to groups of burners making the trek to the desert, says he's charging more than last year for rentals and hasn't noticed any downtick. "I compare Burning Man to a cult type gathering or a Grateful Dead concert," says Curts, of Family RV in San Jose, California. "People just go."

Burning Man supposedly got its start in 1986 when a Bay Area resident named Larry Harvey and a friend set fire to a large burning man structure at a beach in San Francisco. After the incident drew a crowd, the happening was institutionalized and eventually moved to a barren, seven-mile-square expanse of desert in Nevada. But the weeklong event continues to be punctuated by an elaborate bonfire ritual -- the burning of a multi-story structure.

Needless to say, the event has matured from its humble beginnings. There are fire teams, recycling brigades, public greeters and apparently -- a first this year -- texting and cell service. It now attracts people from all over the world. In fact, Kulpin says some 34 different nationalities come through his airport for the event. "It is fascinating," Kulpin says. "The people-watching is great." Too bad many convention organizers can't say they are having the same experience.

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