Vegas casino opening defies US downturn

Fireworks and the opening party temporarily dispelled the gloom in the city, which has suffered the worst rates of job losses and foreclosures in the country.

Fireworks shoot off of the Aria Hotel and Casino moments before its opening at CityCenter in Las Vegas on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2009. (AP Photo/Laura Rauch) *** Local Caption ***  NVLR114_CityCenter_Aria.jpg
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LAS VEGAS // Aria, the most lavish and expensive hotel and casino to be built on the Las Vegas Strip, threw open its doors to the public this week amid some of the harshest US economic conditions in decades. Fireworks and the opening party temporarily dispelled the gloom in the city, which has suffered the worst rates of job losses and foreclosures in the country.

Dubai World and MGM Mirage, the joint owners of the US$8.5 billion (Dh31.22bn) CityCenter resort of which Aria is the focal point, face a tough battle to make good on what some have called Las the biggest bet in town. Both companies are hoping for a flow of revenues from the 27-hectare complex of hotels, shops, restaurants, theatre and casino to relieve their respective debt burdens, which runs into billions of dollars.

William Grounds, the president of Infinity World Development, the Dubai World subsidiary that partnered with MGM Mirage, was the only senior executive from the UAE group at Wednesday's opening events. He acknowledged key individuals involved in the project, including Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem, the Dubai World chairman, and colleagues on the CityCenter board including Chris O'Donnell, the Nakheel chief executive, and Abdul Wahid al Ulama, a senior Dubai World executive.

Mr Grounds also said CityCenter had set a new benchmark for hospitality destinations. "I truly believe this magnificent project is destined to join the pantheon of urban icons that not only symbolise a great metropolitan area but also shape its future," he said. MGM Mirage investors appeared unimpressed with the opening events. Shares in the company were unchanged at $10.35 on Wednesday in New York after Jim Murren, the company's chief executive, rang a bell to remotely close the stock market from CityCenter.

The resort is seeking to capture a new market of visitors to Las Vegas who want an upmarket alternative to the city's other resorts, which are considered tacky by more sophisticated travellers. The project's budget included $40 million spent on art works, including a Henry Moore sculpture. There is also a non-smoking hotel and spa for those desiring a calmer abode away from the frenetic gaming tables.

CityCenter's sleek glass-and-steel buildings, designed by noted architects such as Daniel Libeskind and Cesar Pelli, adds some 6,000 new hotel rooms at a time when resorts are slashing rates to fill their beds. Many analysts are concerned CityCenter will draw off tourists from MGM Mirage's other resorts on the Strip as well as from competitors before, if at all, capturing the custom of new visitors.

"New properties had been viewed as more of an opportunity to expand the customer base of Las Vegas," said Matt Jacobs, an analyst at Majestic Research. "But unfortunately we are still seeing declines in the markets ahead of CityCenter opening." The Sahara hotel and casino complex near CityCenter said on Tuesday it would close two of its towers until demand improved. A day earlier, Binion's Gambling Hall and Hotel shut its 365 guest rooms and cut 100 jobs.

Donald Trump, the property developer who also owns a tower in Las Vegas, did not mince words when he called CityCenter "an absolute catastrophe". "The biggest problem is it costs so much," Mr Trump said. "It cost billions more than anticipated and it's going to be hard to recover from that." MGM Mirage shrugged off his comments. "I can hardly imagine anyone's opinion that matters less than his," said Alan Feldman, the company's senior vice-president of public affairs.