Sin City's Secret Weapon: China and Baccarat
"This is a big deal for us," said Jim Murren, CEO of MGM Resorts, as he stood inside the Conservatory & Botanical Gardens at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. Murren was in the middle of a swarm of tourists, most of them Chinese, snapping photographs of the huge display set up for the Chinese New Year. "All our properties are sold out right now."
RGC Economics predicts nearly 4,000 Chinese nationals will come to Sin City for Year of the Snake celebrations. Some will spend up to $100,000 on the trip. Why come all the way to Las Vegas when Macau is closer? "The weather's better," said Murren. "There's more entertainment here." (Read More: Chinese New Year Brings Tourists and Spending Power to U.S
They will be joined by a much larger group of Asian Americans and those from Canada. James Fung immigrated from China over 20 years ago and comes to Las Vegas every Chinese New Year, "for the good luck."
Every casino in town is decorated with red banners bearing Chinese characters, snake statues, money trees, and many properties kicked off festivities with a dragon dance.
"Our business in terms of Chinese visitors, Asian international visitors, has been growing exponentially," said John Unwin, CEO of The Cosmopolitan, the newest casino on the Strip. "It's been growing in the neighborhood of 20 percent per year."
Baccarat's big money — some players put down $300,000 a hand — has "kept these big properties afloat" during the downturn, said Murren. "The baccarat business, the high end gaming business, is a third or more of our entire profitability."
So far, Murren and Unwin say the slowdown in the Chinese consumer has not been felt in Las Vegas. "I would say (there's been) a slowdown of growth, but we never had a drop," said the MGM CEO. (Read More: (Read More: Why Luxury Brands Are Celebrating Chinese New Year)
Both men discussed their 2013 outlooks for the gaming capital. "From my perspective, our advance bookings are about 20 percent ahead of where they were this time last year," said Unwin. "At the same time, there's still uncertainty out there." Murren said he thinks 2013 will be better than 2012. For one thing, home prices are recovering. "Our correlation of our gaming business to housing is incredibly tight." (Read more: Rich Chinese Flee, Bringing Their Wealth With Them)
In the meantime, they roll out the red carpet for China's big spenders. "The competition is very stiff," said Unwin, pointing out that the Cosmopolitan is opening a second high limit salon focusing on baccarat. Murren called the battle for Chinese tourism dollars "an arms race...you want to have the whales here."
—By CNBC's Jane Wells; Follow her on Twitter: @janewells