What I Saw in Sin City
I went to Las Vegas last week, spending four nights at the iconic Golden Nugget in downtown Las Vegas. I spent Tuesday evening walking from the Nugget to the Strat, where I surveyed Vegas from 100 stories high for two hours.
The next morning, I covered five miles of downtown Las Vegas on foot, covering huge swaths of area.
On Thursday, I walked the length of the Strip, clocking in over 32,000 steps.
I took a two-hour bus tour and talked with the guide. I talked with Uber drivers. I chatted with all sorts of workers, from a farmers market vendor a half-mile north of Fremont Street to bartenders who make those frozen concoctions along the Strip.
I made notes. I came home and surfed the web. I bounced observations off my traveling companion (wife).
I then put all this into a giant blender and poured out these observations.
Primary Observation: Vegas is Back
Vegas, economists say, got hit the hardest among major cities. Nevada casinos alone saw revenues drop $6 billion in 2020. Vegas’ lucrative convention business was shut down. The reverberation through everything—other tourist attractions, hotels, restaurants—has been devastating.
I could see it Tuesday evening when Marie and I walked 2.1 miles from the Golden Nugget to the Stratosphere. We marveled at the ghost town feeling. After we left the Fremont Street area (which had plenty of people, but not crowds), we didn’t come across a single pedestrian until we got a few blocks from the Strat. The uber-cool Art District was empty . . . I mean, zero people. (The Art District isn’t terribly popular, but to see no customers or tourists over the course of about 20 minutes of walking?)
Once we got to the Strat, there were people, but few when compared to my previous visits to major casino resorts in Vegas. When we got back Tuesday evening, there were definitely people in the Fremont Street area but nothing crowded.
On Wednesday morning, we walked all over the downtown area and saw very few people. The number of homeless sleeping on the sidewalks and derelicts who menaced our path exceeded the number of “ordinary” people by far once we got more than six blocks east of the Fremont Street Experience and no areas had many people.
We continued to marvel at the surreal post-apocalyptic feel.
But that switched suddenly. We easily got an elevator to the 14th floor to take our Wednesday jet-lag nap around noon. We woke up two hours later to an inability to get an elevator and maddening crowds.
When we went to lie down, Vegas was in a COVID coma. And then two hours later, the patient was dancing next to his bed.
I’ve concluded: Vegas is back. They’re saying the shows won’t be back until October, and restaurants/bars are supposedly capped at 50% (snicker), but everything else?
It’s all back.
The bus tour guide said Vegas averaged 150,000 visitors every week before COVID, but last week (the week I was there), that number hit 200,000.
I believe him. The short-term outlook is very rosy.
The Las Vegas Review-Journal ran an article last week that said the rebound is coming fast. In fact, the numbers had already started to look robust in March, at least on the weekends, but now it’s just getting better and better.
I spent Wednesday evening on Fremont Street and could barely move at times due to the crowds. It was my fourth trip to Fremont Street in the past six years and it was by far the busiest. The Golden Nugget elevators were running slow. Its pool was so packed, my swim-hungry wife didn’t even bother using it (fortunately, she got to enjoy the pool Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning, just before the place got crazy).
Vegas supposedly has 150,000 hotel rooms, which apparently translates to 375,000 visitor accommodations (per my bus tour guide). They are already predicting weeks of 400,000 visitors, making it impossible to get a room.
What about the long-term?
I expect growth.
There’s construction all over the place. It was, in fact, a nuisance.
Since my last visit in November 2019, the Strip has added the massive Conrad, which opens in a few months, and the development of the newest “happenin’” area on the west side of U.S. 15 is continuing (this recent development gives Vegas three hubs: west of 15, the Strip, and Downtown/Fremont).
On top of that, a revamped El Cortez is serving as the anchor of a revitalized East Fremont Street area, which the Las Vegas city fathers are now promoting heavily. This was my favorite area. It has a lot of foot-traffic overflow from the Fremont Street Experience so the people-watching is great, but not nearly as crowded, it’s not regulated heavily like the Experience (which allows no sitting and mandates masks), it’s “grittier” than the Experience, and restaurant prices are more reasonable. I fully expect Fremont Street East to take off big-time, giving Vegas four hubs (well, really 3.5 hubs, since Fremont Street East is more like an extension of the main Fremont Street hub).
Remember that entirely deserted Art District?
It’ll presumably come back when everything else does, but there’s something else afoot. The Art District and surrounding area sit between the Strip and Downtown. It’s kind of a No-Man’s Land, populated by the Art District, car mechanic shops, marijuana stores, a few wedding chapels, and other expected denizens of lower-rent districts.
But I noticed something Tuesday night. We had spent the evening at the Strat, having dinner and attending the LA Comedy Club (recommended, btw). It was dark and, though we felt safe walking through that area in the daylight, we didn’t deem it remotely safe at night, so we Ubered back.
As we rode north on Main Street, I told Marie, “Look at the decorative lighting they’ve installed in this otherwise-blah stretch. I wonder if they’re trying to bridge Downtown and the Strip.”
And then during the bus trip as we drove through that district, the guide said that there’s not much there now but Warren Buffett had bought up all the land in that area and the locals think something big is afoot.
So, with those two weak pieces of evidence, I’m concluding that there’s a fourth (fifth) entertainment district coming during the next decade.
The bottom line? All systems are roaring green for Las Vegas. The Stratosphere is (not) the limit.
Its population currently sits at 650,000, making it the 27th-largest city in the U.S.
My estimate for 2030? 900,000 people and 15th largest city in the U.S.
You can book it.