etween 1989 and 1997, four waves of hotel development washed across the urban sand dunes of Las Vegas, each depositing between 7,000 and 12,000 rooms into the city's inventory.

Every wave was heralded by bold proposals, financial bustle and hyperbolic press releases, and tourists responded with repeat visits to see the latest mega-properties that, time and again, seemed to live up to the hyperbole.

Repeat business is important to Las Vegas -- it represents about 75% of all arrivals. But in the past five years, there has been little new construction. During the whole of 2002, the city saw a net increase of only 177 rooms.

No major new property will reach completion until Steve Wynn's La Reve opens in spring 2005. And that property does not a wave make: It will add 2,700 rooms, about the same number that came on line during the years between the waves in the '90s.

So, what keeps Las Vegas afloat in the desert? Not family travel. That much-ballyhooed segment has settled into a quiet niche, successfully pursued by only a few casinos, notably Excalibur and Circus Circus.

The city instead counts on three significant ripples to take the place of the waves: entertainment, restaurants and spas.

"A decade ago, gaming had the greatest impact on the city -- 75% of the economy came directly from the casinos," said Terry Jicinsky, senior vice president of marketing for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. "Gaming dollars haven't shrunk, but their impact on the city's economy is now only at the 50% level. The other three elements have risen fast."

Though you still can find a cheap, all-you-can-eat buffet without too much trouble, upscale restaurants opened by big-name, big-city chefs have become a renewable resource for the Las Vegas hotels. If a restaurant's buzz begins to die down, the square footage can always be turned over to a cook with a hotter reputation.

"We're also capitalizing on the evolution of entertainment products to attract repeat visitors," Jicinsky said. The hit Broadway show "Mama Mia!" opened at the Mandalay Bay earlier this month, and two more Cirque du Soleil shows are in development, slated for New York-New York and the MGM Grand.

But the latest twist is that major entertainers will find long-term homes in Las Vegas venues. On March 25, Celine Dion will begin a three-year contract to do 200 shows a year at Caesar's Palace.

"It's a whole new business model," Jicinsky said. "It's more attractive to the artist than touring -- she can let America come to her." Well, not an entirely new model. It sounds a lot like what put Branson on the map. "Yes, but ours will be at the superstar level," he said.

As for spas, there now are 25 "first-class" full-service spas in a town where they were virtually nonexistent five years ago. "We're building the case that Las Vegas has full resort vacation packages in addition to gambling," Jicinsky said.

Jicinsky thinks the three-pronged approach is working well -- January 2003 airport arrival rates were higher than January 2001, the first such increase since 9/11.

And he has not given up hope that another hotel wave is forming over the horizon. "We keep what we call a planned/proposal list that tracks all the requests we've gotten from people exploring construction in Las Vegas," he said. "There's 45,000 potential rooms on that list right now."

It's good to know that speculation, gambling's high-class cousin, is not completely dead in Las Vegas, but for the foreseeable future, money is going into multiple small enterprises rather than larger projects.

It says a lot about our current economic climate when a city accustomed to making a big splash ends up developing ripples rather than waves.


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