Why do we love Las Vegas? What is it about the place that draws us in? What sort of fumes are responsible for its intoxicating effects? There are many specific reasons and broad constructs, which are often very different for people who love Vegas equally. In this post I’ll examine why I love Las Vegas, and why millions of others do as well. In the next day or two I’ll look at some of the specific things I enjoy on the Strip. And just to be clear, when discussing Las Vegas I’m talking about the Strip with all the massive hotels and casinos and bright lights – what you see on television shows and in movies. The Strip technically lies outside of Las Vegas proper, but the Strip is what we all think of then we think of Vegas.
Pinning down exactly what makes Las Vegas – what defines its essence – is no easy task. In the history of the world there has been no city approaching anything like Vegas. If that seems like hyperbole, just think if you can name another city in world history whose existence was/is based almost entirely on entertainment and pleasure in a way that even remotely approaches the scale of Sin City. Certainly there have always been resorts and other cities with rich sports, arts, and entertainment venues (Capua in the Roman Republic and Mantua in the Renaissance era come to mind). But no other city based on entertainment has ever been so economically and culturally powerful. Never before has the very existence of a major world city been based on its out of town guests.
Las Vegas is a strong economic engine with an annual GDP of just under $100 billion. It is no match for the major American cities like New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, but such economic output places it in elite company globally. To give some perspective, Las Vegas has a larger economy than 125 of the world’s 185 countries, and in terms of per capita GDP it is larger than any non-American city except for Paris. Of the Top 50 wealthiest cities in the United States, it had the largest growth rate (31% in 2007) before the economic crisis struck in 2008. Vegas saw one of the fastest population growth rates in the country over the past decade, and was on the leading edge of the real estate bubble prior to 2008. Other cities rely heavily on entertainment and tourism (eg, New York and London), but no other major city’s economy is so intrinsically tied to its hospitality industry. New York would survive without Broadway and London would make it without the West End. But Vegas would quickly dry up without its casinos, resorts, restaurants, and shows.
And Sin City knows how to keep them coming. Vegas averages about 40 million visitors a year, 5.2 million of which are from abroad, making it the 9th on the list of international tourist destinations – just behind Rome. According to 2009-2010 numbers, the hotels maintain an incredible 83% occupancy rate average throughout the year. Guests don’t leave disappointed: 94% rate their visit to Las Vegas as “very satisfying” and 5% rate it as “somewhat satisfying”; one of the biggest negatives in the somewhat satisfied group was that their stay was too short. More than 91% of visitors would recommend a Vegas trip to their family and friends, and about the same number plan on coming back. Those numbers demonstrate astounding universal appeal for a diverse group of visitors.
So what is it about Las Vegas that keeps people coming back, fueling its large economy? While gambling is a hallmark of Las Vegas, gaming is 3rd on the list of visitor priorities behind seeing the unique resorts and seeing shows. It is a tribute to its flexibility and innovation that Vegas has actually increased in popularity despite the proliferation of gambling at Indian casinos and riverboat casinos, the increased tolerance for slot machines, and the propagation of poker clubs throughout the country; less than 1% of respondents in a recent survey say that the increased gambling venues make them less likely to visit Las Vegas. But it’s not simply the resorts, since there are all manner of stunning resorts throughout the world at locations that ranging from tropical islands to snow-capped mountains. Nor is it the entertainment in the form of shows and nightclubs – cities like New York, London, and Paris offer plenty of live entertainment. And while Vegas has fantastic restaurants, many other cities also have wonderful dining.
So what’s the draw? Why do millions flock to an isolated town in the middle of a barren desert? What’s so special about this place above so many others? And why do they all leave so happy? The appeal of Vegas a fascinating question, and one that I have asked myself often. I am a big fan of Las Vegas. Those who know me best are often surprised by my love for Sin City; I’m relatively conservative and straight-laced, not one who enjoys partying at bars and clubs, gambling, or hitting all the trendy restaurants. I enjoy the shows, but there are good shows in other places. I recently learned to play poker and love it, but there are many legal places to play poker these days; and anyway, I enjoyed going to Vegas before I started to play poker. Thus what I ask of those 40 million other visitors I have to ask myself even more pointedly – why do I always love spending time in Las Vegas? What about Sin City appeals to me, especially since I don’t partake in most of the “sins?”
An exact formulation is elusive. I think the the answer lies somewhere in the way I describe Las Vegas to people who’ve never been: it’s so intensely provocative to the senses that it transports you to an altogether different world. Visually it is magnificent: bright lights, stunning architecture, vivid colors, beautiful people, looming facades, stunning vistas, lush gardens, elegant decor, magnificent shops. The smells are unique and pure – each casino has its signature scent wafting through the casino floor, and the pleasing aromas of food perpetually float around every corner. Sounds are zooming by from all directions as they emanate from each resort and casino. Music is always playing, both inside and outside the resorts, not to mention every shop and restaurant. The chimes and beeps and hums of the slot machines are oddly alluring and to a degree hypnotic. Food thrills the taste-buds without fail, as gourmet restaurants are a dime a dozen and buffets packed with the best food of any type make dining an epic experience in itself. Skin comes to life with the soft sheets of the hotel bed, the perfectly controlled temperature of the casinos, and the cool water of the swimming pools.
If the senses are constantly stimulated in Vegas, then so is the mind. Where else in the world can one see magnificent fountains firing streams of water into the air in perfectly choreographed synchronization with music? In what other city is the Eiffel Tower in view of a massive pyramid that sits adjacent to a Medieval castle? Where else can you catch a glimpse of a massive erupting volcano over the Trevi Fountain? Or take a gondola ride while watching pirates and sirens swash-buckle their way around a pirate ship? Or enjoy a luxurious beach with the reflection of a golden building shining overhead?
No other city boasts a panoply of shows that reside in their own custom-built theaters, with spectacles that take place sideways, in the air, under/on/through water, with a 360 seating arrangement, with performers accomplishing jaw-dropping physical feats. Magicians conjure and amaze, sequined showgirls dazzle, comedians pry incessant peals of laughter. A nickel can win a million dollars in Las Vegas, chips are pushed around at the craps, poker, and blackjack tables in denominations in the tens of thousands of dollars each. Fortunes are won and lost by the minute; some experience the thrill of instant wealth, many others experienced the pang of massive loss. Giant screens (dozens of them in each casino) display the major sports events for the day, with plenty of on-lookers eager to redeem their winning tickets.
Swanky nightclubs featuring loud music and swaying bodies each boast their own unique accoutrements. Bars are tucked away in every nook and cranny, both inside and outside the casinos. Some feature dueling pianos, others feature loud music and dancing, and still others feature nude dancers behind screens with only their silhouettes visible to the patrons. Roller coast rides zoom about 100 stories in the air, in and around New York City buildings, and in the depths of ancient pyramids. Luxurious spas with pools and baths feature skin and body treatments of the most opulent sort. Shops and stores offer the most stylish clothes, the most enviable cars, the finest jewelry, the most fashionable accessories, all in malls with extravagant decor and themed facades.
All of those elements make Vegas. Other cities have nice hotels, but nowhere else has nice hotels that open into world-class casinos with top-notch restaurants down one hall, one-of-a-kind shows down another, and a palatial pool complex out the back door. Plenty of resorts around the world have nice spas and good shopping, but nowhere else boasts 3-story chandeliers in the middle of the casinos and shops, or has a mall with a canal with gondoliers rowing alongside the stores, or features an array of night clubs and bars scattered throughout casinos, which possess high-end rooms where people spend a thousand dollars (or more) for one pull of the lever. Other cities have skylines lit by bright, flashy lights, but no other has a giant pyramid projecting a beam into the sky, or features an unrivaled illuminated fountain show, or a facade strewn with massive video screens. All of that makes Vegas, and it begins the moment you walk out of the airplane and hear the first slot machines chirping away in the hotels terminal and see the massive array of big screens flashing in the baggage claim; it doesn’t end until you board the plane to head home.
And that’s why I love it. I’m not one for bars or clubs or the finest shops or even the hot restaurant du jour. But I enjoy being swept up in the charms of the strip. I think I have a good imagination and enjoy daydreaming. Being in Vegas affords the opportunity to live in a daydream, to suspend imagination to a degree because imagination isn’t really needed. I feel like I’m in an entirely unique place, an oasis, an alternate reality. I love history and traveling to all kinds of different places, but I enjoy Vegas as much as anywhere else. Walking through the Roman Forum is fascinating for the history and to connect with something that was once grand, but Las Vegas is grand. Right now. New York is my favorite city, but its appeal for me is its intensified reality. Vegas allows an escape from reality, New York is a thorough re-enforcement of it.
In short, the Strip provides the framework of a dream for me. It is the one place I’ve visited that is truly unlike any other. There are many specific things I enjoy, which I’ll recount in my next post, but overall I love escaping to a place that obviates the needs for daydreams while I’m there. I’ve been to Vegas alone, but I really enjoy experiencing it with family and friends more than anything. I’ve enjoyed going with Melissa a couple of times now and experiencing the fantasy with her as well. Until the despicable aspect of Sin City (and it is there) overwhelms the good for me, or until a new dreamlike nexus supplants it, I will always love Las Vegas.
M. MANDY SCRIPSIT