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Chris Jones

Las Vegas Tourism: Fewer Visitors; Don't Blame Fuel

17 July 2006

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Recent visitor data show that Southern Nevada's once white-hot travel industry has cooled this year.

And while it would be easy to lay the blame on soaring fuel prices, the real culprit -- at least in May -- was an absence of conventioneers.

The Las Vegas Valley hosted more than 3.34 million visitors in May, down 0.9 percent from May 2005, according to information released Friday by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

May's total was only the third monthly decline in local visitor volume since the start of 2005. Its dip comes on the heels of tepid 0.3 percent growth in both March and April, the same months gasoline prices began to spike throughout the United States.

But a closer look indicates that drivers are still making their way to Southern Nevada despite unleaded prices around $3 per gallon.

Traffic on Interstate 15 at the California-Nevada border averaged 40,288 vehicles per day in May, including local residents. That's down 0.4 percent from last year, and still a better monthly average than most reported since 2005 began.

Traffic on all highways in and out of town averaged nearly 87,000 vehicles per day in May, a 0.6 percent decline from a year ago. History shows that highway traffic typically peaks in July and August.

Decreased convention attendance was the largest factor in May's slight decline.

The valley hosted nearly 235,700 fewer conventioneers in May, or 35.7 percent less than visited here a year ago. Kevin Bagger, the authority's research director, said several large shows held here in May 2005 did not return 12 months later.

The Kitchen/Bath Industry Show, which drew 55,000 to the Las Vegas Convention Center last year, was held in Chicago this year. The 24,500-attendee American Institute of Architects National Convention moved to Los Angeles after coming to Las Vegas in 2005.

The International Esthetics Cosmetics & Spa Conference and its sister event, the Las Vegas Hair & Nail Conference, took place in June this year following May dates in 2005. Those events drew crowds of 45,000 this year.

The Hospitality Design Conference & Expo at Sands Expo and Convention Center took its 10,500 attendees to April in 2006, one month earlier than a year ago. The Waste Expo and its 11,000 attendees also came here a month earlier following May dates in 2005, Bagger said.

"We're still getting a net increase in visitor numbers despite having fewer rooms than a year ago," Bagger said, referencing the recent closures of the Strip's Boardwalk and downtown Las Vegas' Lady Luck.

Citywide occupancy was 90.1 percent, down 1.2 percent, while total room nights occupied slipped by 0.7 percent due to a nearly 37 percent decline in nights occupied by visiting conventioneers.

But average daily room rates in the Las Vegas Valley climbed 15.5 percent in May to $121.12. The annual average reached $122.99 percent, up 15.2 percent.

Year-to-date, the local travel industry's 0.9 percent growth rate was well off last year's 12-month pace of 3.2 percent, though 2005's strongest gains came in June, July, November and December.

May passenger traffic at McCarran International Airport topped 3.9 million, virtually unchanged from a year ago. The airport's year-to-date total of nearly 18.7 million was up 3.9 percent.

Laughlin's 273,415 monthly visitors represented a 15.6 percent decrease from May 2005. Year-to-date, the number of people who visited the Colorado River resort slipped by 224,080, or 12.9 percent, compared with last year's five-month total of 1.73 million guests.

The news was only slightly better from Mesquite, whose May tally of 132,779 visitors was 9.3 percent worse than a year ago. Its year-to-date visitor total was 670,326, down 6.9 percent.

Still, average daily room rates in Laughlin and Mesquite increased by 7.3 percent and 25.5 percent, respectively, through May 31.