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How Vegas benefits from fast cars, foreign travel and the Far East

| By Buck Wargo | Reading Time: 9 minutes
International travel to Las Vegas rebounded in a big way in 2022, and the ongoing recovery in Macau together with the Strip’s F1 race in November will pave the way for continued recovery in 2023 and 2024.
Nevada October

The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA) last month released preliminary estimates showing Las Vegas attracted 3.41 million international visitors in 2022.

This represents a 162% gain over the 1.3 million in 2021 and 1.14 million recorded in 2020. Las Vegas has regained 60% of the 5.6 million international visitors that visited in 2019 prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s a significant improvement on 2021, when only 23% of Las Vegas visitors came from overseas.

North American visitors from Canada and Mexico continue to lead the way, but travel from Europe and other overseas locales contributed to Vegas’ recovery as pandemic travel restrictions were eased.

Led by a surge from Canada, there were 1.87 million visitors from North America in 2022, a 75% increase over 2021. Mexico contributed 989,480 visitors, up 8.2% from the prior year, while the 885,610 Canadian visitors represented an extraordinary 471% increase on 2021’s numbers.

Taken in the round, this means all but 12% of Mexican visitation has returned to Las Vegas, while 60% of Canadian visitation has also been restored.

Canada and Mexico are running ahead of their norms by making up 55% of international visitors in 2022. They accounted for 46% of the total in 2019, a figure that rose to 60% once UK visitors were included.

UK tops Las Vegas’ overseas visitation charts

The overseas international visitor category, meanwhile, jumped 565% to 1.53 million. In 2019, prior to the pandemic, 3 million overseas visitors flocked to Las Vegas, with 2.6 million coming to the city from North America.

Visitor numbers from Asia, and in particular China and Japan, were slower to recover in 2022 than other regions such as Europe. Just 52,470 visitors from the UK arrived in Las Vegas in 2021, but numbers surged 819% to 482,380 in 2022 to top the charts of overseas tourists.

Visitors from the UK account for 14.1% of international travel to Vegas, according to the LVCVA. However, in terms of total numbers, the UK is yet to top 2019 when 741,000 of its citizens headed to Sin City.

That rebound is apparently behind an announcement earlier this month by Virgin Atlantic that it will launch a seasonal route flying three times a week between Las Vegas and Manchester starting in June 2024. Virgin currently offers a daily service between Las Vegas and London Heathrow.

Australia also witnessed a surge in air travel to Las Vegas in 2022. The number of travellers from down under jumped 189% to 152,030, although again this falls well short of the 471,000 who visited in 2019.

Overseas travel to Vegas in 2022

  1. UK: 482,380 (+819% year-on-year)
  2. Australia: 152,030 (+189%)
  3. Germany: 125,050 (+514%)
  4. Korea: 99,840 (+871%)
  5. Brazil: 97,320 (+744%)
  6. France: 55,250 (+527%)
  7. Ireland: 47,320 (+1,493%)
  8. Netherlands: 38,440 (+760%)
  9. Spain: 33,530 (+549%)
  10. Japan: 33,400 (+981%)

China, which provided the fifth highest number of international visitors in 2019, fell down the rankings after Covid restrictions remained in place far longer than in other countries. Just 10,640 Chinese citizens came to Vegas in 2022, putting it in 19th place on the list.

Pumping up the numbers with new sporting events

The Las Vegas Grand Prix taking place on 16-18 November is expected to attract 100,000 attendees each day. The spectacle is likely to bring in visitors from all over the world and generate nearly $1bn in spending.

Las Vegas will build off its 38.8 million visitors in 2022, which was about 9% lower than the 42.5 million who arrived in 2019.

The drop in international visitation and a fall in convention attendees has contributed to that gap, which is expected to close in the next year or two.

In 2019, 79.4 million people visited the US. The US Travel Association has forecast international arrivals to reach nearly 70% of that level in 2023 and 95% in 2024. Those travel forecasts tend to mirror what Las Vegas gets, according to Kevin Bagger, vice-president of the research centre at the LVCVA.

“International is recovering, but it’s recovering at a slower pace than domestic did,” Bagger explains. “It’s not where we want it to be, but it’s absolutely going in the right direction. The trajectory is positive. It’s a notable improvement over the depths of the pandemic period of 2020 and 2021.”

Bagger adds the LVCVA doesn’t have an estimate for 2023 visitation but believes “the positive projection will continue”.

Hey, big spender

The attraction of international travellers is that they tend to spend at a higher level. They contribute more on non-gaming activities than the typical visitor, including lodging, food and beverage and shows.

The LVCVA’s 2022 data estimates the average tourist spends $1,106 per trip, while international travellers spend $1,527 – a 38% increase. Convention attendees, meanwhile, spend more than $1,400 per trip.

“International visitors are exploring,” Bagger says. “They’re coming from much further away and seeing not only Las Vegas but the surrounding area.”

Las Vegas has been in a good place, led by the Strip. Nevada’s gaming industry has posted 26 consecutive months of revenue of $1bn or higher. There’s little sign of it slowing down.

“Leisure has been sustaining us,” Bagger says. “Convention has been gradually improving as well and with international and special events we remain positive on the visitation trajectory.”

Bagger is among those who believe that China lifting its Covid restrictions bodes well for the US and Las Vegas. Another is Corey Padveen, a partner with t2 Marketing International.

“I think you will see the Chinese numbers come back up, but I’m not surprised at all that it is taking longer than others to come back up to pre-Covid levels,” says Padveen.

“The opening of Macau does bode well for Vegas. It gives an incentive to go there and make the trip to Vegas as well.”

Scottish native Oliver Lovat, CEO and managing director with Denstone REA, argues Macau’s recovery is significant and that “Vegas will be at the epicentre of that”.

What does Macau’s rebound mean for Las Vegas?

What’s surprising about Las Vegas’ rebound and record-breaking gaming revenue, according to Alidad Tash, managing director of 2NT8 Limited, is that it didn’t involve overseas high rollers, especially the Chinese.

China discarded its zero-Covid policy early in January, leading to a major rebound in gaming in Asia, he explains. As a result, Macau will see gaming revenues quadruple last year’s $5.3bn total.

“The resurgence of Chinese high rollers will also benefit Las Vegas, as it remains one of the preferred destinations of the super-rich,” Tash says. “It’s slower than in years gone by, but I believe it has started. Traditionally, they’d travel to Vegas during Chinese New Year. This year, it fell early on 22 January, allowing very little time for people to make travel plans from 8 January when everything opened up.

“It will only get stronger as the year progresses. They’d visit Macau, then Singapore and eventually Vegas. They’re the icing on the cake for Vegas and not the cake itself.”

Brendan Bussmann, managing partner of B Global Advisors, points out international visitors have been a continued growth area for Las Vegas over the years. It’s been the hardest area to recover and there’s room for growth, especially from Asia.

Waving the chequered flag

Bussmann’s biggest concern is whether economic headwinds overseas impact travel to the US. But that, he adds, shouldn’t deter the high-end visitors attracted by F1.

“F1 is popular around the world and whether you are witnessing a race like you had in Monaco or the Grand Prix in Abu Dhabi, you have a worldwide following of people who want to come and see those races,” he says. “The first race in the sports and entertainment capital of the world is going to be one that’s hard for those fans to miss. They want to be here and be a part of it.”

Las Vegas as a global brand will only use that F1 backdrop to attract additional international visitors in the following months, Bussmann says.

Lovat argues the high-end international crowd, particularly those from the Middle East and Europe, are waiting for F1.

He knows many “quite wealthy” people who are waiting for F1 but the demand has already returned. That’s pushing airlines like Virgin to offer more flights that will further bump visitation in 2024.

“If you walk down the Strip you will notice a lot of accents that aren’t American,” Lovat says. “I noticed that last week. We’re not fully returned to where we were in 2019, but we’re not far off. I think 2023 is going to be a heck of a year still. The big monster hasn’t come yet in F1. There will be more people flying internationally than any other weekend in history.”

Increasing the international appeal

Manchester United playing Borussia Dortmund at the Allegiant Stadium on 30 July will also attract international visitors and British expatriates living in the US, Lovat points out.

“It’s another reason for people to come to Las Vegas,” he says. “If we keep programming things, they will come.”

And they are coming from abroad.

For 2023, Las Vegas has seen 960,496 international visitors pass through the airport, 75% more than in 2022.

Padveen is not surprised Las Vegas has bounced back thanks to international travel. There’s pent-up demand after the World Health Organisation announced Covid-19 was no longer a global emergency and that mechanisms are in place to prevent it from spiralling out of control again.

That means even the most nervous tourists are willing to get on board once again, something evidenced by the numbers passing through Harry Reid International Airport.

Las Vegas set an all-time April record of 4.8 million passengers travelling through the airport. This built on a strong March in which the airport recorded its second-highest traffic ever at 4.93 million passengers.

“For normal people, life included a buddy’s trip, bachelor’s trip or family trip where Vegas was one of the options,” Padveen says. “It’s not surprising to see this pent-up demand coming through quickly. A lot of people planning to get back to their normal schedules wanted to get back to this trip ahead of a lot of others.”

There were 266,536 visitors travelling to and from international destinations in April. This marks an increase from the 252,670 in March and a 33% year-on-year jump, according to airport figures.

Player preferences

With the arrival of international visitors, especially those VIPs of Asian descent from Canada and Asia, baccarat is in vogue.

Through the first four months of 2023, baccarat drop reached $2.8bn, 12% higher than the $2.5bn recorded during the first four months of 2022. Baccarat win for casinos is down 3% for the year, according to the Nevada Gaming Control Board.

Josh Swissman, founding partner of GMA Consulting, thinks the growth in baccarat is a sign of recovery for international visitation. Even the gain in convention visitation is reflective of the jump in international visitors, he adds.

The 4.99 million convention visitors in 2022 was only 8.7% below 2019 levels. Electronics show CES rebounded strongly with 115,000 attendees, up from 45,000 in 2022 when the Omicron variant was causing concern.

There’s room for improvement because it’s still well below the 170,000 who attended the show before the pandemic.

“These conferences that would typically have a greater international participation rate – you are seeing those numbers going up to last year,” Swissman says. “All the metrics are going in the right direction.”

Swissman expects that to carry over to the autumn with the Global Gaming Expo in October and Automotive Aftermarket Expo in November.

Domestic versus international

Andrew Klebanow, co-founder of C3 Gaming, says the lag of international visitation compared to domestic travel to Vegas is not down to a lack of desire. And, like Bussmann, he expects F1 to play a key role in attracting visitors from overseas.

“F1 will serve an important role in the recovery of international travel into Las Vegas, putting video images of Las Vegas Boulevard onto millions of television screens,” Klebanow says, looking ahead to 2024.

“There’s a number of reasons for the lag in international travel from 2019,” he continues. “First, international airlift has yet to fully recover. There are just not enough airline seats coming into the United States to fully meet demand.

“Second, international airfares remain inflated, owing in large part to the same issues US carriers faced in 2021 – a shortage of airline crews.

“Third, there remains a lingering amount of trepidation among international visitors who had experienced far more onerous restrictions during the pandemic than US residents. It is just going to take a bit more time for visitors from some countries, particularly East Asia, to get comfortable travelling through crowded airports and on full planes.”

Adding a new audience to the mix

When they’re ready to travel, Las Vegas is in position to capitalise, according to Padveen. Las Vegas’ strategy of expanding beyond gambling and partying and into events makes it more of a destination in his view.

“The community understands better than most globally how to put on an event that attracts hundreds of thousands of people,” Padveen says. “Outside of soccer, one of the most internationally engaging sports on the Vegas Strip in F1 is going to be huge.

“It’s an opportunity to capture and ingratiate yourself to an international community that otherwise may not have thought about going to Vegas at all.

“Partnering with them and setting up the city for them and turning this into an experience that extends throughout the entire city and similar to what they do in Monaco can be a huge factor for driving an entirely new international audience.”

F1 caters to a more affluent community and, while they may have visited in the past, this is another reason to bring a lot of high rollers and international money into Las Vegas. Padveen believes both sides win as F1 aligns itself with an iconic city.

“If you’re getting people to plan an annual trip to the city or [attracting] people who fall into higher income brackets, they come in and spend quite a bit more,” he says. “That’s great for the city.”

Buck Wargo

Buck Wargo is a Las Vegas-based business and gaming journalist. He’s a former reporter for the Los Angeles Times. He has a degree in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Texas and worked as a foreign correspondent in the Middle East.

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