To be sure, Las Vegas today looks no more like a poverty zone than it does a religious camp. Caesars Palace is preparing for a billion-dollar makeover, including a 23-story tower and three new swimming pools. In fact, much of the Strip looks like a giant construction site, with crane lights competing with casino neon. MGM Mirage’s $8 billion CityCenter project alone takes up 76 acres.
But other numbers tell a darker story. Hotel occupancy was down for January and February, the most recent figures, by 1.5 percent, despite average daily room rates 3.8 percent below the year before. Gambling revenue in the Las Vegas metropolitan area for the same period was down about 4 percent.
“It’s accelerating to the downside,” said Bill Lerner, a senior gambling analyst at Deutsche Bank who lives in Las Vegas. “Las Vegas’s economy is more reflective of the general economy than ever.”
Las Vegas visitors said in recent interviews that they were spending less than in the past.
Rita Keene, a retired insurance risk manager from Collinsville, Ill., said she has been coming to Las Vegas several times a year since 1978 and had never set gambling limits. This year she is betting no more than $300 a day at the slot machines, and she is not going to shows.
“We have investments, and you know what the stock market has been doing,” she said while putting quarters in a slot machine at the Orleans casino. “My husband and I have even talked about this maybe being our last time.”
Even as Americans cut back, foreigners are helping to prop up the Las Vegas economy. The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority reports that the average foreign visitor spent $1,200 for purposes other than gambling in 2007, up from $1,159 in 2006. That compares with average spending of $701 for all visitors in 2007, down from $750 the year before.
Gil Colon, sales manager at the Villa Reale antique and furnishings shop, said his business was off a bit, and would be down more except for revenue from foreigners, whose purchases have jumped from 30 percent of his sales two years ago to 50 percent today.
Having just arrived with his family in Las Vegas, Murat Sahsuvar, a Turkish hotelier, came into the store looking for 24 crystal chandeliers for a hotel he is building in Istanbul. Mr. Sahsuvar said he planned to buy Vacheron Constantin and Patek Philippe watches for himself and his wife, dine at the best Italian restaurant in town and have a little fun at the poker table at the Bellagio.
“We’re going to save lots of money on the watches, at least 5,000 euros,” he said. That sum, equal to nearly $8,000 because the dollar has fallen so much against the euro, “will take care of my hotel, my traveling and my food while in Las Vegas.”