In classic Las Vegas fashion, showgirls adorned in red costumes and feather headdresses heralded the first transoceanic flight to arrive at McCarran Airport in almost 20 months on Nov. 8.
Virgin Atlantic Airways' Boeing 787-9 from London landed at McCarran the same day that travel restrictions eased, allowing Covid-vaccinated international visitors to enter the U.S.
It was a joyous occasion for those in the hospitality and travel industries.
"Today is a watershed moment for Las Vegas as international borders open, and we welcome overseas visitors back to the destination," said Steve Hill, president and CEO of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.
"In addition to being a world-class leisure destination, our major tradeshows and conventions draw large international delegations, and we are very optimistic about the opportunities that lie ahead," he said.
Before the pandemic, Las Vegas welcomed nonstop flights from 31 cities in 12 countries. International travelers make up 15% to 20% of Las Vegas visitors, according to the LVCVA. The U.K. is one of its most important markets, with 730,000 visitors annually.
More airlines returning to Las Vegas
British Airways was set to begin nonstop service from London Heathrow on Nov. 15, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines from Amsterdam on Dec. 7 and Copa Airlines from Panama City on Dec. 7.
Rosemary Vassiliadis, Clark County director of aviation, noted the symmetry of Virgin's return since that airline was the last flight to leave Las Vegas in March 2020 at the pandemic's outset.
A marquee on the Las Vegas Strip welcomes back international travelers. Photo Credit: Sam Morris / Las Vegas News Bureau
"Virgin gives us the leisure passenger," she said. "We know the pent-up feel for international was going to come back as quickly as domestic, so after the governments worked everything out with the protocol and the airline takes care of that with each of the passengers, we knew that this flight was going to be filled and it is."
Las Vegas officials were not the only ebullient ones that day at the airport. Among the passengers on the first flight back was Steven Stanley, whose voice cracked when he said how excited he was to be back in Las Vegas.
"I'm so happy it hurts. … I'm here to see some friends I haven't seen in a long time. It's been a couple of years. I haven't been on a plane in two years. I'm amazed to be back in Vegas," Stanley said.