Las Vegas: Introduction

  • © nautical,

    © nautical,


Las Vegas is the embodiment of the American dream of instant gratification, a neon Fata Morgana in the desert. Las Vegas lives on the dreams and obsessions of people in search of instant wealth and rewards. This driving desire is why a city could rise out of the sand – in the middle of the barren, scorching heat of the southern Nevada desert – and become the world's gambling centre. Around the clock, 365 days a year, this gambling city is a glittering fantasy world that makes the reality of everyday life seem very far away.

Time and space become meaningless in the neon oasis of Las Vegas. The Downtown casinos, and those on Las Vegas Boulevard and the legendary Strip, transport you to another reality, to an artificial air-conditioned world. Here, you will find yourself in ancient Rome, or strolling through New York, Venice or through a fairy tale medieval castle. Even during the recession, new and more spectacular casino palaces are being built and more exciting shows and illusions are offered.

Annually, almost 40 million visitors flood the glittering metropolis in the Mojave Desert, but the property and financial crisis of the past few years has curtailed the length of visitors' stay, and they are not as generous as they were at the gambling tables. Today, most visitors stay three or four nights – and you will need at least that length of time if you want to see all the various aspects of the city. A lot of visitors, especially Americans, often come back, allowing themselves a short break from their everyday routines to try their luck: gambling, winning, losing, watching the shows, spending the nights in hot clubs and cool bars. Or they relax at the swimming pools and spas, go dining or simply let the flashing neon lights and LED screens on the Strip and Downtown carry them away.

Cheap rip-offs and sophisticated entertainment

Las Vegas offers both cheaply produced rip-offs as well as sophisticated entertainment. Shows are produced using the latest technology, and shows like the Cirque du Soleil are experiences that involve all the senses. Wild roller coaster rides, white tigers and lions all ensure non-stop action and a feeling of the exotic. There are museums and galleries that exhibit works of world-renowned artists, and some of the casinos themselves are works of art. There are also many sophisticated restaurants that inspire the eyes as well as the palate.

For a long time, Las Vegas was the fastest growing city in the USA, and today it has almost 2 million citizens. Lured by work opportunities in the casino industry, almost 80,000 people a year moved to Clark County (Las Vegas and its immediate surroundings) between 1990 and 2008. This is where the American dream – taxi drivers making millions, hotel porters lining their pocket and own villas – can become a reality. However, the recent recession has put a huge damper on the boom town. House and property prices have dropped by 50%, and the unemployment rate has soared to a staggering 15%. Thousands have moved away – and even left their houses and mortgages behind.

The irony of fate: the men who founded this glittering world were actually Mormons. Around 1830, Mexican traders discovered a small oasis with an artesian well at the foot of the Spring Mountain. The name Las Vegas, which translates as the 'plains', dates back to that time. In 1855, the Mormons built a small fort to protect their wagon trails on their way to the Pacific. But it was only in 1905 that Las Vegas came into being, as it developed from a workers' camp for the first railroad in the region. Saloons and gambling halls (at that time they were still illegal) sprouted up along the dusty Fremont Street in front of the train station to form the basis of a fledgling city.

1931 became the year of fortune for Las Vegas. The state of Nevada legalised gambling (officially to cash in on tax money for schools). At the same time, the US government started building the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River. Soon, 5,000 workers were living in camps on the outskirts of the city – and Las Vegas boomed in the middle of worldwide economic crisis. New casinos sprang up in the desert sands, and by 1940 the population had risen to 8,500 inhabitants. The Second World War brought soldiers and the arms industry, but also danger: for ten years underground atomic tests were conducted only 70 miles from the city. The tests themselves even became an attraction for the casino guests.

A Mafia war erupted around the casino profits

Of course, the American Mafia (the Mob) could not just sit by and ignore such a lucrative little city. A gang war erupted between the followers of Al Capone and Lucky Luciano – the Mafia clans from Chicago and New York – over casino profits. In 1946, the notorious Benjamin (Bugsy) Siegel opened the Flamingo with star guest Frank Sinatra. The Flamingo was the first luxury casino on the Strip, the main thoroughfare leading to Los Angeles. The Flamingo failed and went bankrupt, and Bugsy was eventually killed by a hit man.

The era of glamorous entertainment started in the 1950s, and this was the time for which Las Vegas became famous: the era of Elvis Presley and the Rat Pack with Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. A gambling commission controlled gambling and issued licences, and the government declared war on organised crime. For decades, the FBI investigated these powerful illegal syndicates. During the 1970s, various instigators were arrested for cashing in on the profits of casino revenues, whilst some politicians were suspected of being in cahoots with the Mob.

Downtown in Fremont Street, you can still imagine how Las Vegas must have been in its heyday, when the main pleasure was gambling, drinking and smoking – and a visit to a 'working girl' afterwards.

Since then, Las Vegas has expanded its entertainment range. Everybody still comes to gamble, but in Vegas there is also far more drinking, partying and prostitution (even though it is illegal) than in any other American city. But even holidaymakers, who sometimes frown upon these indulgences, get their money's worth here.

New casinos: each one more splendid and fanciful than the last

Each new casino built was more splendid, more fanciful that the last. In 1973, the MGM was the largest hotel in the world with its 2100 rooms. In 1990, Excalibur took the honours with 4032 rooms, until the MGM Grand reclaimed the title again with 5000 rooms. Almost every year, one of the casinos expands with a new tower and space for a thousand more guests. Today, there are almost 150,000 rooms in the city. Most of the hotel giants belong to large consortiums, which call many of these large casinos their own.

A lot of building projects were halted during the recession, but it is not only the ongoing financial crisis that has endangered the development of the city. Las Vegas, and the entire south-west of the USA, is threatened by a drought. The reservoir of the Hoover Dam, with the largest man-made lake in America, Lake Mead, is running dry - the lake has dropped to almost half of its capacity. The water level has not been this low in the last thirty years. With the snow melt in 2011, the Colorado River brought some water down from the Rockies, but the drought conditions of the past ten years continue.

At the same time, the river has to provide more and more people with water and energy. Only a small percentage of the water is pumped to Las Vegas as the lion's share of the Colorado water is used for agricultural purposes, irrigating the barren lands of Arizona, South California and Nevada. The alarm bells are finally sounding: if the drought persists, the Hoover Dam turbines will have to be shut off, and along with it, the power supply; a catastrophe that will also affect all the neighbouring states.

Las Vegas is under a 'drought watch'

In Las Vegas, people have started to take action and a 'drought watch' has been declared, with strict water regulations being enforced for the watering of lawns, washing of cars and use of decorative fountains. There are restrictions on new buildings being constructed, and the building of new swimming pools is completely forbidden. However, tourism is mostly spared from these restrictions. Businesses on the Strip and Downtown all have special exemptions, and so people continue to live the high life. The precious water is lavishly squandered, and the energy sapping neon lights shimmer day and night.

Nobody wants to believe the depressing predictions, and nobody comes to Vegas to listen to gloomy apocalyptic theories. Even those people who arrive in Sin City with a sceptical frown succumb in the end to the seductions of this fantastic wonderland, because Las Vegas is unique. It is like a kitsch and surreal film – where the visitors are allowed to partake in the act – for a price.

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