Is tourism back in Vegas? Recent numbers say it is

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The beach at Mandalay Bay spells out a timely message for guests.
The beach at Mandalay Bay spells out a timely message for guests. Photo Credit: MGM Resorts International
Paul Szydelko
Paul Szydelko

Recently released statistics show that March may have been an inflection point for Las Vegas amid the pandemic.

With vaccines becoming more available, Covid-19 positivity rates down and the third round of economic stimulus checks hitting bank accounts, tourists returned to the Strip in pretty big numbers.

Good signs were evident in several areas:

• McCarran Airport served nearly 2.6 million passengers in March, a 60% increase over February's 1.6 million.

• More than 2.2 million people visited in March, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, an increase of almost 45% over February.

• The statewide gaming win was $1.7 billion in March, a 72.6% increase over March 2020 when casinos were ordered closed by Gov. Steve Sisolak. It was the highest win for a month since February 2013.

"Now that the virus has been reduced and there's vaccine solutions in place and everyone has availability to it by May, that means that you're starting to see the floodgates open up," LVCVA spokeswoman Lori Nelson-Kraft told the Washington Post on April 29.

"One [month's] observation is not a trend," cautioned Stephen Miller, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Gaming revenue, taxable sales, visitor volume and occupancy rates fell off a cliff in March 2020 with the pandemic's onset. Las Vegas sharply but only partially rebounded by May and June in what economists call a V-shaped recovery, Miler said.

"It was like 40% back to the peak or 50% or 30% [depending on the category]. So it was moving back, but it didn't get all the way," he pointed out. "Then we went into sort of the doldrums. The series [of numbers] was up but not too much through the summer and into the fall."

While motor traffic from California recovered completely by October, Miller noted that McCarran Airport was trending in the wrong direction in the winter. It ticked up in February and then substantially increased in March.

Those coming to Las Vegas to wager on March Madness (the NCAA men's basketball tournament) coupled with the easing of capacity restrictions no doubt aided the resurgence.

"March was a really good month," Miller said. "Everybody's sort of hanging around waiting to see what's going to happen [with new numbers from April]. They're pretty confident things are on the way back," he said.

McCarran is about 60% of the way back from its peak, Miller said, "so we're still in the hole. We're not out of the hole if you think of climbing back to where we were in February 2020. And that's true for most of the series."

Casinos' coffers may be recovering at a faster rate. For example, the gaming revenue of Clark County, home of Las Vegas, was $893 million in March, compared with $631 million the previous month, and was close to the $897 million that was achieved in February 2020, right before the pandemic.

"That was a startling number, when that came out, to most folks," Miller said. "They didn't expect that big a change. It was a lot."

More casino floors are being allowed to operate at 100%, and June 1 is still the target date for lifting all capacity restrictions. Visitor volume and the number of tourists coming by airplane are the most important data Miller will monitor in the coming months.

International pandemic conditions, Covid-19 variants and the percentage of people vaccinated all affect tourism and the overall economy, Miller said.

"I view the virus and the economy as attached at the hip," Miller said. "If the economy is really going to take off, we've really got to get the virus under control. If we get it under control, there's pent-up demand. There's every reason to believe that once the virus is under control that the economy should resume very positive growth."

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