Cast your eyes over any list of the most popular travel destinations in the United States and Las Vegas is likely to appear in the top three – pipped perhaps by New York and Disneyland. Numbers are an appropriate way of understanding the motivations and expectations of the 42 million people who visited the gambling haven last year.
Finding somewhere to stay in America’s Macau is a breeze. Seventeen of the 20 biggest hotels in the US are in Las Vegas, and it would take 288 years for one person to spend a night in every Sin City hotel room. More than 110,000 marriage licences are issued in the city each year. That’s 300 weddings a day; many of them Elvis-themed and, it goes without saying, there are more Elvis impersonators based in the city than anywhere else on the planet.
Las Vegas enjoys 300 days of sunshine a year; perfect for a handicap-lowering round on one of the 50 golf courses located within an hour’s drive. Players can then take their pick from countless buffets and legendary restaurants – from all-you-can-eat catfish Sundays and taco Tuesdays, to the iconic Heart Attack Grill.
The Meadows (that’s “Las Vegas” in English) has become one of America’s fastest-growing cities. Low or non-existent taxes and attractive property prices lure young professionals, families and retirees. Some tourists arrive on a visit and end up staying longer than planned. The story goes that in 1966, billionaire entrepreneur Howard Hughes was asked to vacate his penthouse suite at the Desert Inn during the busy New Year period. He refused and promptly bought the hotel.
Any visitor to Las Vegas should allow time to see something of the region. The Grand Canyon is a hop and a skip away and the stark landscapes of Death Valley and Red Rock Canyon are nearer still. At Mount Charleston, which is only 45 minutes to the west, the ski season is about to start. But it’s the casinos that many people are in town for and, who knows? You might get lucky.
Guests are funnelled up past fleets of limousines, along a series of escalators and walkways to be greeted by a cacophony of noise, flashing lights, bells and digital beeps. Drinks are free to all gamblers; whether you’re at the high rollers table or just pumping coins into slot machines. And if you find yourself on a winning streak, a staff member will soon appear with coupons for complimentary meals, shows and buffets.
According to Nasa, the Las Vegas strip is the brightest place on Earth when viewed from outer space.
Hongkongers may be used to canyons of glittering lights but for wide-eyed vacationers arriving from rural Midwest states, the sight of a man-made volcano firing jets of pina-colada-scented water high into the air is a jaw-dropping reminder that they’re not in Kansas any more.
Top 10 tourist destination it may be, but that’s because Las Vegas is America’s favourite adult playground. Think carefully before bringing the children; there’s not much for them to do. The place is known as Sin City for a reason. “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” sounds like something partying college kids say to each other with a knowing wink, right? Maybe, but the slogan is also plastered across the Visitor Information Centre homepage, daring punters to overindulge.
And that manufactured cacophony of noise and sense of excitement that greets tourists as they enter casinos? It’s designed to seduce suckers into believing they’ve arrived just as the machines are paying out. It may not look, or sound, like it but most gamblers are actually losing. Those complimentary cocktails soon affect a player’s judgment on whether to stick or twist, but if by some stroke of good fortune you do win big, the casino will make a show of upgrading you to a luxury suite and offer other freebies, including the use of a limousine. The more they pamper you, the longer you stay and the more you spend on the premises. The casino wants its money back.
Low or non-existent taxes mean there’s little in the kitty for social service programmes and, boy, does Las Vegas need them. Nevada is one of the unhealthiest states in the country. It’s also the suicide capital of America. In a familiar scenario, despairing souls hit the tables in a last-ditch attempt to win big but end up losing all they have left. Some slowly drink themselves to death, and drug overdoses are common; unemployment and poverty are rife. Three hundred days of skin-blisteringly hot sunshine is not much of a consolation when you’re homeless.
The police maintain a high profile on the Strip and cleaners, gardeners and an army of maintenance staff keep it spotless, shiny and manicured. Wander a short distance away from the bright lights, however, and the atmosphere becomes edgy and intimidating, the sirens louder and the buildings boarded up. In Las Vegas you can do anything you want at any time, so head along to a 24-hour pawn shop at 3am and watch desperate characters hock their paltry possessions for peanuts. Not so glitzy now, is it?
After a recent power cut at a major Las Vegas casino, which prompted the evacuation of thousands of guests, a punter from California claimed he’d won more than US$1,000 on a Keno machine just as the lights failed. Well, what are the odds?
Perhaps the most deplorable gambling-related incident allegedly took place in 1980, when a local hospital suspended members of staff who had been betting on when patients would die. It sounds like an urban myth but this is Las Vegas, and I wouldn’t bet against it.
Elvis would have loved the medically themed Heart Attack Grill, with its 10,000-calorie Triple Bypass Burgers and Flatliner Fries cooked, you guessed it, in lard. Customers who weigh more than 350lbs (158kg – the King’s weight when he died) eat for free.