The best time to arrive is at night, in a plane that flies over the Strip before landing at its southernmost extremity. The street is at its most dramatic after dark, several billion bulbs beckoning partiers, gamblers and lost souls into the casinos they illuminate. But, more than that, it's then that the city's monstrous sprawl is most visible from the air, little lights spreadeagling into what was desert scrub less than a generation ago.
From gold miners to high rollers
The growth of Las Vegas over the last two decades, since Steve Wynn planted the roots of a revolution and opened the Mirage hotel in 1989, has been an archetypally American miracle. There's no reason for the city to have survived its troubled early beginnings, when bust invariably followed boom and new settlers were quick to unsettle and move elsewhere. By rights, this should be a ghost town, like so many of the mining settlements and gold rush cities that ringed it.
And yet a century after its founding, Las Vegas continues to expand. A combination of persistence, greed, marketing savvy and dumb luck has elevated this inhospitable desert outpost into a mammoth cash cow, its milk provided by an astonishing 40 million visitors a year. But it's also the fastest growing residential area in the US, slouching ever further into the valley in which it sits. Only from above is it really visible just how mammoth Las Vegas has become.
The sea change came in the 1990s, when Las Vegas Boulevard – aka the Strip, the most preposterous four-mile thoroughfare in the country – was virtually rebuilt from scratch by developers who saw potential in what had been a fading vacation town. Themed casinos, luxury hotels and outlandish resorts sprung up along the street, doubling the number of hotel rooms here in next to no time. It was an audacious and expensive gamble, but it paid off: visitor numbers soared and the city boomed like never before.
Las Vegas spent the early part of the 21st century consolidating its success, but another swell of construction has since engulfed it.
A few old stagers (the Stardust, the Desert Inn, the New Frontier) have bitten the dust in a series of cacophonous demolitions. In their place will stand a slew of skyscraping, wallet-emptying residential condo developments, each one standing as priapic testament to the city's status as one of the most fashionable and luxurious in the country.
Modern-day Las Vegas
Low rollers are always welcome here. But with glamour-packed nightclubs and upmarket restaurants now overshadowing glum lounges and all-you-can-scoff buffets, modern-day Las Vegas continues to surf a wave that simply refuses to break. Many outside observers are waiting for the bust to follow this most extraordinary of booms, but don't bet on it happening any time soon.
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