Las Vegas goes Asian

Times Staff Writer

Alan Tam is playing Vegas these days. Never heard of him? Some say he’s a Chinese Mick Jagger. Comedian Crocket performed over the summer at Caesars Palace. He’s the Robin Williams of Japan.

In almost every way, Las Vegas is catering to Asians, offering Asian entertainers, high-stakes baccarat tournaments and rice congee by room service. The festivities and decorations for Chinese New Year have become second only to those for New Year’s Eve.

Hoteliers and tourism officials have chased Pacific Rim high rollers for years, and the effort is intensifying. Korean Air last month began nonstop flights three times a week from Seoul to Las Vegas. Many of those flights are expected to draw travelers from China.


In part, Vegas is reacting to the success of gaming in Macao -- and hoping to capitalize on it. The Chinese territory’s 22 casinos, with their proximity to the sheer wealth and population of China, are viewed as competitors and appetizers for Vegas’ allure. This year casino gambling revenue in Macao is expected to edge past that of Las Vegas. Each locale brings in more than $6.5 billion.

“There’s no question in our minds that as more and more Chinese customers experience Macao, their natural curiosity is going to make them find out what the major leagues are like in Las Vegas,” said MGM Mirage spokesman Alan Feldman. (An MGM Grand is scheduled to open in Macao in 2007.)

“If you go to Macao and you really like it, the next thing on your list is going to be to come to Vegas.”

As tourism markets go, China is a jackpot in the making. Within five to 10 years, overseas travel will lure an estimated 100 million Chinese annually, a figure that will dwarf every other market in the world, tourism officials said.

In preparation, Nevada has been greasing the wheels overseas. It was the first tourism destination to be issued a license to advertise in China, and four tourism commission staffers are based in Beijing. Last year the state spent $100,000 on advertisements in Asian airline magazines.

Vegas-based tour operator David Huang, owner of Chinese Hosts Inc., says he shuttles about 100 Asians a day to the Grand Canyon, with dozens of others taking tours of the Strip and Arches National Park in Utah.


“For China, in their mentality, this is the ultimate destination,” Huang said.

On one recent night, Huang’s company chauffeured two busloads of tourists -- most of them Asian -- on a tour of Vegas after dark, hitting all the glitzy, tacky, over-the-top attractions that many had seen only in the movies. They watched the volcano explode at the Mirage, the “Masquerade Show in the Sky” at the Rio, the fountains at the Bellagio and the campy Fall of Atlantis at Caesars Palace.

“We’ve heard so much about this place,” said Elisa Laurente, 55, traveling with her husband from the Philippines. “We wanted to see for ourselves how Las Vegas is. It’s beautiful. It’s simply awesome.”

Friends Stephanie Liu and Matilda Tai, both 26 and from Taiwan, took in the same night tour after a full day of shopping.

They had spent hundreds of dollars each on Coach purses -- two of them -- clothes from Gap and souvenirs. Liu said she had “no budget.”

“I’ll play the slot machines, maybe,” Liu said. “That’s the easy one. I will win all the money I spend.”

Las Vegas casinos, restaurants and other tourism-reliant businesses are welcoming visitors like Liu and Tai. “There is a very widespread awakening to the value of the Asian market to our tourism-based economy,” said Chris Chrystal of the Nevada Commission on Tourism. “They stay longer and they like to spend money.”

To better cater to visitors from China, many Vegas operators are taking cues from their ventures in Macao, which are drawing crowds of visitors by ferry from Hong Kong.

Vegas hotels have hired chefs from Hong Kong to serve up authentic dishes. Even room-service menus are starting to reflect the desires of the diverse customer base, offering rice congee and dim sum alongside hamburgers and turkey clubs. There are a multitude of Asian restaurants to choose from, where waiters are more comfortable speaking Mandarin or Cantonese than English.

Las Vegas Sands Corp., the first Western operator in Macao, opened the Sands casino in 2004, and a Venetian is slated for completion next fall.

“I’ve been to Asia a dozen times or so,” said Ron Reese, spokesman for the Venetian. “Sometimes I’ve landed in Macao and all I’ve wanted is a cheeseburger. They may want dim sum ... and we’re able to provide that” in Las Vegas.

The Venetian in Vegas boasts seven Asian-language television stations in every room and same-day delivery of several Asian newspapers. On the gaming side, the casino opened a high-end baccarat salon. It is stocked with 100 types of tea, rather than dozens of beers on tap.

“A traditional gaming experience for an American may be to sit down and have a Budweiser,” Reese said. “We’ve obviously found out through our operations in Macao that Asians prefer not to drink alcoholic beverages while they’re playing. They enjoy a good tea.”

The Venetian’s exclusive Paiza Club, which opened last year, has an Asian theme, including dragon statues and other art. The high-roller suites even have a karaoke room complete with flashing lights, microphones and a curved lounge-style couch.

“Compared to what this room would have been, I bet you would have been hard-pressed to find daily delivered Chinese newspapers, Chinese programming on TV and dragons on the backs of chairs,” Reese said. “Certainly there’s a different feel and atmosphere than Las Vegas five years ago.”