Where can the downturn work to your advantage? It's Vegas, baby!

What happens in Vegas may stay there, but these days, the problem is how to get there in the first place.

McCarran Airport, Vegas' major entry point, reported its biggest year-on-year drop since after 9/11. And Southwest Airlines, the rare profitable airline which recently said it wouldn't need to tighten its flight schedule, reversed course and said 13 flights, or about 5% of its Las Vegas seats, would be eliminated starting in January. Considering Southwest is one of the most reliable feeder of tourist traffic to the Strip, that's quite a blow.

To further put it in perspective, as of Sept. 2, Vegas had 81 flights from U.S. Airways daily. A year ago, it had 141.

The pain, though, is mostly for hoteliers and airlines. Tourists are starting to see a real benefit to the growing malaise. On Tuesday, Arthur Frommer wrote about seeing an ad for a two-night Planet Hollywood package for $149 per person that came with either $100 back or two free show tickets. When he called to book, he told the receptionist it was still too expensive. And just like that, he was offered the same deal for two people at $249 total. That's desperation.

Earlier this summer, casinos were low-balling tourists with archaic rates like $33 to $55 a room. Even now, prices on the Strip are sliding southward (the Sahara for $24, the Tropicana, $46, both quoted through a Hotels.com promotion) and rooms off the Strip are so low (like $20 at the Plaza Hotel off Fremont Street), they're virtually tragic.
We haven't seen prices that low for respectable Vegas mega-hotels in years. Go ahead: Spend an extra $80 to $100 on your plane ticket. With prices like those, you'll still come out ahead.

If this goes on, money-saving tourists will be able to enjoy a permanent return of Vegas' affordable pre-millennium personality. Remember that? Before its woozy addiction to luxury building projects in which rooms cost over $200 a night, casinos used to bet the house on the fact that visitors who saved on the bed would lose on the gaming floor. That easy accessibility to sin is what gave Las Vegas its modern reputation.

But Vegas is now suffering a hangover from the heady times when the tourist money was easy to come by. It succeeded in defining itself as a top-end destination just when its clientele needed to cut back. When a local Vegas paper posted a story last month about flat visitor arrivals and falling room rates, the reader comments told a cautionary tale. "Las Vegas doesn't want me anymore," lamented one retiree called Canadian. "I've stayed in just about every hotel on the Strip, but now it appears only two are in my price range."

Other commentators on the same story said that the casino owners (presumably emboldened by good times that are now fading away) had tightened their betting odds to the point where average schmoes couldn't win anymore. "At least when the mobs owned the place you would win," wrote one reader.

The one area where Vegas is still doing well? Booze. While room rates and arrivals plummet, liquor proceeds plump up. Dean Martin would have loved it.
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