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Las Vegas welcomes its 40 millionth visitor — it thinks

Las Vegas welcomes its 40 millionth visitor (more or less) of 2014, a record

Las Vegas welcomed its 40 millionth visitor on Sunday, making 2014 a record year.

At least, it thinks it welcomed that person. No one really knows exactly when the milestone will be reached or whether it already has.

But entertainers including Penn & Teller randomly surprised tourists with prize packages, and Teller picked out two women from Texas strolling through the Linq promenade on Sunday as the ones that put Las Vegas over the top.

“We’re supposed to know exactly who the 40 millionth is because Teller was supposed to count,” Penn Jillette said.

“He was counting from the beginning of the year and then he lost count at 39 million so now we know that someone in this area now is probably the 40 millionth.”

The women were awarded makeovers at a local salon.

Reaching 40 million visitors a year has been an elusive target for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

The recession hit the leisure travel and convention segments hard. The previous peak -- 39.73 million visitors -- was reached in 2012 before a slight decline last year.

“We keep evolving every single year,” Rossi Ralenkotter, the authority’s president and chief executive, said of the growth. “It is all about adult freedom .... We give everybody permission to have a good time.”

Ralenkotter told me he now has his sights set on 45 million annual visitors, which he thinks is reachable within the next decade.

Las Vegas already has more than 150,000 hotel rooms, more than any U.S. city, but Ralenkotter said that’s not enough if visitor volume is to continue climbing.

“We probably will have, over the next seven years, about another 10,000 rooms. That capacity will give us the ability to bring more people in,” he said.

Southern California continues to be Las Vegas’ single largest market. Southlanders will make more than 10 million visits to Vegas this year, accounting for 26% of the total.

Las Vegas continues to be what Ralenkotter called L.A.’s “playground,” but he is also focused on growing the number of international visitors, which is at 20% this year.

“Our goal over the next seven years is to get that to 30%,” he said.

Canada, Mexico and Britain, all of which have nonstop flights to McCarran International Airport, account for the largest numbers of foreign travelers.

The authority is targeting Brazil, China and India, which have expanding middle classes, as growth markets. Ralenkotter hopes airline expansion at McCarran will soon allow travelers from those countries to reach Las Vegas on nonstop flights or itineraries with a single connection.

Ralenkotter believes construction of Resorts World, a project of Malaysian gaming developer Genting on the land formerly occupied by the Stardust, should help attract more visitors from Asia. The visitors authority chief expects the hotel and gaming complex, which has yet to break ground, to open about three years from now.

Ralenkotter, whose family moved to Las Vegas in 1951 when he was 4 years old, has witnessed phenomenal growth. In 1950, the population of Clark County was 48,000. It now exceeds 2 million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

When he began working for the authority in 1973, about two-thirds of Vegas visitors came from Southern California. That percentage has declined as the authority has nurtured other markets and vastly expanded the city’s convention business. More than 5 million of this year’s total are conference delegates.

The Southland, however, remains what Ralenkotter called “the consistent market.” About 98% of Southern Californians are repeat visitors, according to research done in 2013. About half were younger than 40, and 71% said they gambled during their stay.

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