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Benjamin Spillman

TOURISM: Holiday arrives; Vegas hotels full

25 May 2007

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- It's a good thing Las Vegas sells dreams because the reality of holiday travel isn't pretty.

Gasoline costs more than $3.20 per gallon, taxicabs increased fuel charges this week and McCarran International Airport could run out of parking spaces this weekend.

But neither driving headaches nor room rates higher than summer temperatures in the Mojave desert are expected to deter the estimated 295,000 people forecast to visit Southern Nevada this weekend.

It's probably because reality is the last thing on the minds of people who want to spend the weekend in Las Vegas.

"Everybody is looking for a fantasy weekend," said John Martell, 46, of Tucson, Ariz. "It is too crowded, but that is the price you pay."

Martell and his girlfriend, Beatrice Crowder, expect to touch down this morning in Las Vegas. The couple is among the holiday hordes whose nongaming spending this holiday weekend is expected to top $206 million.

"We both love to party and gamble," said Martell, a real estate appraiser. "We will probably spend twice in Vegas what we would anywhere else."

The Automobile Club of Southern California reports Las Vegas will be the second-most popular destination for 2.3 million Southland residents who plan to take a driving trip this weekend. San Diego was No. 1. And the American Automobile Association estimates 407,000 Nevadans will travel more than 50 miles from home.

For people flying out of Las Vegas this weekend, officials at McCarran suggest hitching a ride to the airport because the number of passengers will greatly exceed the number of parking spaces.

"There are limits to how many automobiles we can park at the airport," said Randall Walker, director of the Clark County Department of Aviation. "And rather than test those limits we're asking those who can to please catch a ride with a friend or family member or take a bus or taxi to the airport on their way out of town."

Including overflow spaces at the Thomas & Mack Center there are 10,670 parking spaces at the airport. It sounds like a lot. But the number of spaces represents only about 8 percent of the 130,000 passengers who use McCarran on a typical day.

If the typical percentage of local passenger traffic holds steady at 12 percent during the busy holiday weekend, the number of people considering a drive to the airport will be higher than the number of parking spaces.

"One missed flight caused by parking delays can ruin a vacation before it starts," Walker said. "That's why we're asking people to plan ahead."

Rosemary Vassiliadis, deputy director of the Clark County Department of Aviation, said she expects new parking spaces will alleviate the shortage, but not for a while.

"Very shortly we will be starting on our third garage," Vassiliadis said.

The airport will add about 8,600 spaces to the parking inventory within about a year. But construction of a third terminal scheduled to open in 2011 and other projects will consume about 4,100 spots for a net gain of 4,500. The new terminal will also include about 6,000 new spaces when it opens in four years. Another garage in the works will add 1,800 more spaces.

Parking lots, roads and airports won't be the only crowded places this weekend. Southern Nevada hotels and resorts are booked solid, said Michael Zaletel, CEO of the hotel-booking Web site

"There is almost nothing left," said Zaletel, whose customers represent about 1 percent of hotel bookings on a given day. "We would normally have 30 to 40 hotels going into a weekend."

Zaletel said the only remaining Strip hotels with "decent rates" for the weekend are Monte Carlo at an average of $252 per night for the three-day weekend and New Frontier with an average rate of $144.

Although the hotels are full, average daily room rates charged through the site are only about $115, similar to Memorial Day 2006, he said. Major Strip properties booked through the site sold rooms 10 to 15 percent cheaper than last year, he said. That means hotels could have charged more for their rooms, Zaletel said. An increase of just 10 percent of the average rate applied throughout Las Vegas would represent another $1.5 million per day in room revenue, or $4.6 million for the weekend.

"They are sold out," he said. "Which means they lowered (rates) unnecessarily."