LOS ANGELES – May the Year of the Horse bring better luck than the Year of the Snake.
That's what Las Vegas casinos are hoping for the upcoming lunar new year that begins Feb. 12, following a disastrous end to a year that saw Asian travel to the city — which accounts for a major chunk of its lucrative high roller business — virtually vanish after Sept. 11.
So far the signs are encouraging, according to casino representatives, who report that advance bookings look strong for next month's lunar new year — a holiday known for attracting ethnic Chinese from North America and Asia.
The stakes are especially high for some of the city's marquee casinos, like Bellagio, Caesars Palace and MGM Grand, that cater to high rollers and rely on Asian bettors for a big part of that business.
"We're looking at Chinese New Year this year as being very close to, if not at, normalized levels," said Alan Feldman, spokesman for MGM Mirage, owner of the MGM Grand, Bellagio, New York-New York and Mirage casinos. "Our advance reservations are right about where we would expect them to be at this point."
MGM Mirage rival Park Place Entertainment Inc., whose properties include Caesars Palace, Bally's and Paris Las Vegas, also is optimistic going into the lunar new year, said spokeswoman Debbie Munch.
"We're pleased with the early reservations we have from Hong Kong and Taiwan for Chinese New Year, but it's premature to predict" what the final turnout will be, she said.
Specific data is hard to come by, but industry watchers report that the volume of overseas Asians — who account for as much as 3 percent of annual visitors — in Las Vegas dropped to a trickle after the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
But, while U.S. leisure travel to the city has rebounded strongly and convention business is also on the mend in recent weeks, business from Asia has been slower to rebound.
JAPAN AIRLINES DEPARTS
In one important indicator, Japanese flagship carrier Japan Airlines suspended its five weekly non-stop flights from Tokyo to Las Vegas shortly after Sept. 11. It has yet to resume service, although flights could resume as soon as March, according to some observers.
The loss of the flights — the only scheduled non-stop service from Asia to Las Vegas — is a significant symbol. Japan provided an estimated 511,000 visitors to Las Vegas in 2000 — the highest count for any individual Asian nation, according to the Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority.
"Generally speaking, we saw quite a big drop-off from Asian markets after Sept. 11," said convention authority spokesman Rob Powers. "One of the reasons was that Japan Airlines suspended service. It's no secret that Asians, and Japanese in particular, are very sensitive to traveler safety."
To lure back some of those Asian patrons, Park Place embarked on an aggressive marketing campaign late last year, said Munch.
In one of two major concerts, Caesars Palace staged a "Hong Kong All-Star Christmas Special," which played to a capacity crowd of 4,000 and was televised on Mandarin and Cantonese language stations in the United States and Hong Kong.
On Christmas Day, another sell-out crowd of 8,000 attended a concert by Hong Kong pop sensation A-Mei, Munch said.
"While we might have wished for a higher percentage of overseas guests for the two concerts, the regional, national and continental business strongly affirmed our marketing efforts post-Sept. 11," Munch said.
RETURN OF THE "WHALES"
While overall Asian business has been down in the months since Sept. 11, the loss of Asian "whales" -- the Vegas term for high rollers who spend millions of dollars in a single visit — has been particularly keen for casinos that cater to high-end players.
"In the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, we were off 75 to 80 percent" in Asian high roller business, said Feldman of MGM Mirage, the industry's biggest marketer to high rollers. "But that's rebounded very nicely — even a little faster than we expected."
Reflecting the absence, revenues for baccarat — a high-end game favored by Asian players — are down about 25 percent since Sept. 11, compared with last year, said Bear Stearns analyst Jason Ader.
He said he has heard anecdotally that many Asian high rollers have promised to come for Chinese New Year, but it remains to be seen if they will come.
"I was there for (U.S.) New Year's," he said. "I saw a lot of tourists, but noticeably absent were your Asian high-roller customers."