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food / travel

Las Vegas, How Global Finances Are Burning Sin City

Ever since the financial crisis, casinos have been losing money. To survive, Las Vegas must lose its reputation as a place good only for gambling, boozing and prostitution.

Tunnels beneath Las Vegas house the city's homeless
Tunnels beneath Las Vegas house the city's homeless
Jürgen Schmieder

LAS VEGAS — Frank Sinatra is strolling through the streets of Las Vegas.

Those who see him immediately understand why they call him Ol" Blue Eyes and the Sultan of Swoon. He orders a drink at the bar, lights the cigarette of some lonely heart in a white evening gown, tosses a silver coin into a slot machine and then spots another woman, who faints the moment she looks into his blue eyes. Sinatra's left hand is in his pocket, and his right hand rests on the back of the lovely Patrice Wymore. He whispers something in her ear, kisses her cheek and slides his room keys into her décolleté. She smiles shyly.

This wonderful scene from the movie Ocean's Eleven was shot 56 years ago, but it still captures what people imagine when they think of an evening in Las Vegas: A man in a tuxedo, watching a show where someone with a voice like Dean Martin's croons, "My life is gonna be beautiful" A bevy of beauties in evening gowns sit by the bar, which has an old-fashioned tumbler; any profits from Blackjack are spent on both.

Then there's the real Las Vegas. Nobody looks like Sinatra or Wymore anymore; instead, people look like a bunch of pool attendants and soccer coaches. Three young women in bikinis several sizes too small stagger by the gambling tables. They have been to a pool party, and immediately two guys in sloppy sweat suits approach them with an invitation.

"Hey, what's up? You wanna party?"

The women don't smile shyly. They holler, "Damn right!"

Las Vegas has changed over the last 50 years. It has even changed over the last 10 years. This incomprehensible entity in the middle of the desert in Nevada, this American dream of spectacular decadence, this place for magicians, musicians and showgirls, has become an economic nightmare. If you want to know how the U.S. is doing, take a look at Las Vegas.

2007 was the last year when casinos on the strip generated a profit ($709.4 million in total.) At the time, the rules were easy to understand: The house always wins. What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas — and since everything that happens there has something to do with money, the money stays in Vegas, too.

In 2008 came the crash. Because of the recession, many Americans could no longer afford such a decadent trip, and consequently casinos lost about $4.1 billion. The numbers are still devastating: recently, losses totaled $923.3 million.

But if there's a lesson to be learned from the financial crisis, it might be this: What reasonable person would want to gamble if he knows that in the end, he'll lose anyway?

"Every year, more and more people come to Las Vegas," says Mike Lawton from the Nevada Gaming Control Board, which predicts 42 million visitors to the city this year. "Total turnover on the strip must be the highest in this town's history, but gambling lags behind. That's why we're losing money."

By night, when everything's sparkling with lights, the strip truly does look like a theme park, complete with a model medieval fortress, Roman palace and Egyptian pyramid. Instead of looking for Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, people can take pictures with one of the scantily clad girls in front of the Bellagio's fountains, to the tune of Shirley Bassey's "Big Spender," a song about a girl who tries to collect as many dollar bills as possible for promising men some exciting hours in her company.

"Make Vegas Great Again!" The slogan Donald Trump hammers into his followers' brains is already being put into action. Sheldon Adelson is planning to build a roofed arena for $1.4 billion, a temple to host 65,000 spectators. The Raiders, the world's craziest American football team, are about to move from Oakland to Las Vegas.

City leaders, including Mayor Carolyn Goodman, have a goal: To rid the city of its "Sin City" moniker and reputation as a place good only for gambling, drinking and sleeping around. Instead, they'd like to establish Las Vegas as "Entertainment Capital of the World." Sure, it doesn't have the same ring to it, but perhaps it's closer in spirit to Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and Marlene Dietrich than it is to packs of young men in baggy trousers hooking up with drunk young women in bikinis.

Whereas previously the city was a destination for magicians, comedians and artists, now it will welcome sports teams and leading musical acts. In April, the first Guns N' Roses concert in 23 years took place in Las Vegas. In June, Miss USA will be crowned there, and in July, there's going to be a UFC 200 mixed martial arts event. In between, Billy Joel, Coldplay and Nicki Minaj are all slated to come through town. Broken down strip-clubs tucked on streets between major hotels are being replaced by designer fashion boutiques. Something had to give in Las Vegas, to make sure that what happens there, really does stay there in the long term.

Businesses that resist change ultimately perish and are replaced. The city's hospitality industry has been turned on its head: hotels are cutting their amenities and special offers, and visitors now even have to pay for parking.

Rumor even has it that today, casinos don't mind letting visitors win, reasoning that more expensive hotel rooms and tickets and larger bets will make up for such occasional losses.

"Casinos must become places where visitors have a realistic chance of winning, if they're skilled enough," says Gregg Guiffria, head of a firm called G2 Game Design.

Las Vegas' greatest strength lies in its ability to continuously adapt to remain an attractive destination.

The era when a guy might slide his room keys into a lady's décolleté are long past — and even back then, Wymore threw them in the trash. The Bellagio's fountains are alive today, although it is not yet nighttime. Two songs play in succession: The American national anthem and "Viva Las Vegas." Surely, that can't be a coincidence.

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