A dismal future for tourism?
Back in 1997, I ventured to Boulder for a conference about tourism put on by the Center of the American West. Easily the most provocative speaker was the late Hal Rothman, professor of history at the University of Las Vegas.
It's easy to bash Vegas as a greedy place of contrived attractions, he said, but that's the tourism industry, and "If your local economy needs tourists, then Vegas is your future, like it or not."
Tourists are willing to spend good money to get a certain experience, he said, which means there's a "script" -- a set of expectations that a successful tourism operation must meet.
The Vegas tourist wants bright lights and the chance of getting rich quick. The Iowa tourist in the Rocky Mountains might want to catch fish -- and to assist with the script, the streams and lakes are stocked with rainbow trout. The cultural tourist in Santa Fe wants "authenticity" -- so there are strict building codes to insure that every exterior is constructed "authentically."
But Rothman made another point about Las Vegas -- thanks to strong unions, it was a great city for working Americans: "This is the last place in the United States where you can have no skills and make a middle-class wage," he told High Country News in 2000.
That article noted that "If tourism is Las Vegas' industry, then casinos, some with as many as 5,000 rooms, are its factories. And these 'factory' workers aren't struggling to survive on minimum wage....a maid can make $14 an hour, buy a home and a car, and send her kids to college. Elsewhere in the West, service workers struggle to earn a living wage; they rent mobile homes and commute long distances."
But the bloom is off that rose, according to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal. Unemployment is up and the population is dropping.
More laid-off Americans mean fewer people with discretionary income for casinos, and many of us who still have work are pinching pennies. Further, corporate America has cut way back on those conventions that were a mainstay of Vegas commerce.
So if Rothman was right that Las Vegas represents the future of tourist zones in the American West, then even harder times loom. But on the other hand, as Las Vegas and Phoenix wither, there won't be as much demand on the hard-pressed Colorado River.