Waking Up in Vegas

Las Vegas, the flashy, fast-paced, entertainment capital of the world seems to be plotted with extreme precision to fit this fantasy.


Admit it. You have dreamt of at least one holiday in a lifetime, the memories of which talk in unabashed whispers. A travel memoir, that is impulsive, reckless, even chaotic, but brings back a cheery, infectious energy.

Las Vegas, the flashy, fast-paced, entertainment capital of the world seems to be plotted with extreme precision to fit this fantasy. Part wonderland, part hedonistic hideaway, for long the lascivious Shangri-la of the West, it is wooing a large number of Indian visitors.

Situated in the semi-arid state of Nevada, Vegas belies its geography to give visitors a taste of extreme indulgence. Travel trend watchers say it is this shimmering image that is beginning to attract the luxe travel segment from India.

According to visitor data and statistics, Indians are one of the fastest growing groups of visitors to the United States. The number of Indian tourists grew more than 75 percent between 2009 to 2014 to 962,000, according to US Department of Commerce’s National Travel and Tourism Office data. It estimated that the number of Indian tourists touched almost 1.1 million in 2015, overtaking Italy as the the 11th largest tourist group to the United States. According to the office’s projections, Indian tourism will top 1.4 million by 2020, a compounded annual growth rate of 6.6 percent, which is second highest after only China among top 20 source countries.

Kelly Craighead, executive director, National Travel and Tourism Office, US

Department of Commerce, while inaugurating the Brand USA pavilion at SATTE, one of India’s major travel and tourism shows, in January this year said that visitors from India spent $ 9.8 billion in travel services in the United States in 2014, which represent nearly two-thirds of all service exports to India. Indian tourists are the seventh largest international spenders in the country.

New York, with its towering skyscrapers and the backdrop for many a Bollywood movie, is by far and away the most coveted U.S. destination for Indian tourists, accounting for almost 29 percent of the market share in 2014, National Travel and Tourism Office data shows. Mid-Atlantic states, which beside New York, include New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Washington D.C., Virginia, and West Virginia, accounted for almost 38 percent of the Indian tourist traffic.

Las Vegas with its somewhat wasted reputation, where gambling rules and semi-nude girls are as common a sight as cows on Indian roads, is hardly the ideal fit for the family oriented and prudish Indian traveller. However, with its trademark nonchalance and its ability to reinvent, Las Vegas has begun slowly attracting a stream of unlikely family visitors from the Indian sub continent. And the shift is reflected in visitor statistics. Indians are now amongst the top 10 foreign nationals to visit Nevada every year. The state hosted 63,000 tourists from India in 2014 with the volume said to be growing at the rate of 33 per cent annually. And that does not count the tourism by an even larger number of Indian Americans, who top 3 million in the United States.

Rajan Sharma (seen here with his wife Aarti): “Vegas offers an experience like no other place and is totally different from India in many ways, hence it greatly intrigues Indians.”
Earlier this year, Mark Hutchison, Lt Governor of Nevada, led a four-day mission to New Delhi that included the official opening of Nevada’s first tourism office in India. Curiously, the state opened the India office after closing one it had established in China in 2004. State officials highlighted that US, is the most desirable destination for Indians, with Las Vegas coming in third behind New York and San Francisco as the preferred destination, drawing 6.5 percent of the India market. That is nearly one in two of the nearly 12 percent of Indian tourists who visited casinos during their travel, according to National Travel and Tourism Office data. It no doubt hopes to peel away some of those headed to Atlantic City in New Jersey or Foxwood and Mohegan Sun in Connecticut.

But the Nevada Commission on Tourism also has it eyes on the broader 450 million middle class citizens in India, 50 million of whom own a passport, who it sees as the potential catchment.

As luxury travel booms in India, Las Vegas, with its over-the-top promise, is quietly emerging as one of the new chosen destinations.

Travel photographer Aman Chotani, who has been globetrotting with travel company Cox and Kings, headquartered in India, to document the culture and nuances that attract visitors to different destinations, says: “In recent times, there has been a rise in glamor travel once again in India. After recession, people were looking at frugal travelling and discovering places in their own backyard, this was followed by the rise of adventure traveling and now once more people are looking at experiences straight out of the pages of a glossy.”

Chef Nishant Choubey, selected for a chef training program on southwest food sponsored by the
Southern United States Trade Association, says Vegas offers many varieties of cuisine.
What’s also attracting a stream of Indian holiday goers to Las Vegas is the varied experiences the city offers. Rajan Sharma and Aakriti Sharma, a young couple based in New Delhi, chose Las Vegas to celebrate their marriage anniversary recently. Rajan, a design professional, says: “US was on our bucket list for a long time, but we wanted to avoid the obviously touristy New York and do something fun. So we took a road trip to Vegas from San Deigo. Vegas offers an experience like no other place and is totally different from India in many ways, hence it greatly intrigues Indians.”

Aakriti recalls: “On my anniversary I saw so many couples tying the knot at Vegas. I also had a bride in all her fineries enjoying a sumptuous breakfast on a table next to mine, in a cute little café. I think it’s these hedonistic details that gives Vegas its distinct character.”

Travel trade experts say the new appeal of Las Vegas is tied to a transformation in the city and its image. Ratna Chadha, chief executive at Tirun Travel Marketing, says: “In the past few years Vegas has transformed itself from a casino city to a holistic entertainment city. There are so many fun activities ranging from music, to sports to sightseeing that it makes perfect sense to count it as a family travel destination too.”

In a strategic shift in focus, Vegas reinvented itself after the Great Recession as a tourist destination beyond its casinos. It offers up major sporting events, big-ticket fights, music concerts and an explosion of the choicest culinary offerings, making it a major food aficionado’s destination too. The up-coming T-Mobile arena will further strengthen its position as a music hot spot. Though the travel trend watchers in India say it’s unlikely that many Indians are chalking their holiday plans based on sports or music events, but the global buzz definitely fuels the interest.

Chadha says, “Most of the Indian visitors to Vegas are the ones who are visiting family and friends based in California.” According to her, the vast distance between India and America and the availability of cheap and unlikely travel destinations in Eastern Europe discourages many Indians from taking a long haul flight to Las Vegas.

But given the 3 million Indians settled in the United States, Nevada tourism authorities still see a large pull pull.

Larry Freidman, deputy director of the Nevada Commission on Tourism said during the trade mission that Nevada has a built-in advantage in attracting Indian travellers because the 600,000 Indians living in California have family and friends visit them, who repredent a great market. According to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, the number of visitors to the city in 2014 topped 41 million, of which 27 per cent were from Southern California and 19 percent were international visitors. Though the casino city’s popularity is driven by its gaming culture, the other entertainment infrastructure has added to its repertoire of things to do while in Vegas.

Elvis Presley impersonator
Travel photographer Aman Chotani says: “Indians are still learning how to break away from the traditional holiday structure. They are including diverse activities but for a large number Vegas still stands for casinos and razzmatazz. It’s only when they are here that they realize that the city may have more to offer.”

Casino is hardly a popular pastime in India. Of the 29 states and seven union territories in India, only three — Goa, Daman and Sikkim — have legalized casino gambling. Goa with ten casinos on land and on sea, boasts of the largest number in the country. But even so, most Indian visitors to Las Vegas love a chance to check out the world famous casinos.

The enchanting rural drives and cowboy culture are added bonuses. Friedman noted that Indians are “intrigued by our Western heritage.” So from the breathtaking road trips around Vegas, to the famous Route 50 in Nevada, also called the loneliest road in America, to the cowboy countryside to national parks, Vegas can pack quite a lot for an unassuming visitor.

But Chadha says, “India is still a nascent market where any new form of entertainment or holiday would take some time to be accepted and same is the case with say music holidays, culinary trails or sporting holidays.” She cautions, “I am not sure if there are a lot of repeat Indian visitors to Vegas.”

Aman Chotani says, “People are looking at experiences straight out of the pages of a glossy.”
It may take a Bollywood splash for Las Vegas to capture the Indian imagination. Ritu Jain, who runs a travel company in Mumbai, says, “Remember the 2011, hit film Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara? Soon after its release we were booked solid with Indian youngsters planning road trip in and around Spain. It’s not uncommon for tour operators to experience a surge in business, soon after a place is romanticized in a Bollywood movie.”

Curiously, despite its glitzy billboards and stunning landscapes that provide a perfect backdrop, Bollywood hasn’t really come calling. In recent years, ABCD 2 and Ek Main Aur Ek Tu were shot in the sin city. But with neither was a major hit, so the magic of the place went unnoticed. Perhaps the only Bollywood movie that brought Vegas into the limelight was Shah Rukh Khan’s 1997 hit film Pardes, in which a popular song was shot amongst the blazing Vegas billboards.

Bollywood may not return the love, but Las Vegas is decking up for it. Mike Styles, a 25 year old young man who runs a bling accessory shop on a boulevard on the famous Vegas strip, says “My accessories are fit for Bollywood.”

Indian restaurants are also cropping up all over Vegas. Though the city is dotted with celebrity chefs and their famed restaurants, serving everything from over priced steaks to gourmet greens, it’s just as easy to chance upon a decent Indian eatery. A server at the Tamba Indian Cuisine and Lounge, located just minutes away from the famous Bellagio Hotel says, “When Indians visit Vegas they at least have one meal that is Indian.”

Ratna Chadha: “In the past years Vegas has transformed itself from a Casino city to a holistic entertainment city.”
Chef Nishant Choubey, who manages the kitchen at Dusit Devarana Resort in Delhi, participates in food events in California, regularly. He says, “You can’t miss the obvious Indian presence looking at the Vegas food scene. Soy meat is getting popular there and its not uncommon to find the food trucks sell everything from tikkas to soya chicken Chettinad “

During the past few years many top hotels have added yoga classes as part of their experiential stay. While Hotel Mirage introduced underwater yoga classes with dolphins darting in the background for distraction, at Monte Carlo you can partake a yoga class at the break of the dawn. Though the number of Indians turning to yoga in a Vegas resort may be negligible, according to hotel staff, it sure makes them feel closer to home.

Just the chord the tourism board seems to want to strike with Indian travellers.



What Happens in Vegas

So what’s a good vegan girl with little interest in gambling, who’s also seemingly uninspired by statuesque bodies of semi-clad women, got to do in Vegas? Well, a helluva lot, really.

Vegas has a lot to offer beyond the garish lights and glam machines to build dollar dreams. Behind the peacocky present of this Wild West frontier, it has a rich array of historic sites.

Las Vegas, which literally means “meadows” in Spanish, is an unlikely name for a place where you can count more LED screens than constellations in the sky.

The Splendid Strip Tour

If Vegas is the microcosm of partying in the world, then its famous strip best captures its character and fun. From shiniest casinos to mini replicas of the world’s wonder, the strip covers everything you can dream.

Check out Caesar’s Palace for a gaming experience unlike any before. Bellagio has some of the best poker machines. If you have kids in tow plan a trip to Circus Circus for fun games. Never been to Eiffel Tower? The Pyramids? Statue of Liberty? Don’t worry, Vegas has you covered.

Well almost. At the Paris Hotel, a half size replica of Gustave’s Eiffel Tower awaits you. You can buy tickets to the observation desk on the top floor for a breathtaking view of the city. Bellagio offers a replica of Italy’s Lake Como; The Venetian offers gondola rides; at New York New York a Statue of Liberty and Empire State Building replicas await you. If heights are your thing, there are the rides and observation desk at Stratosphere.

You can even catch hop-on, hop-off bus tours that take you across the length of the strip. From the high roller that packs you in a capsule 550 feet above the ground to the fountains outside Bellagio, the strip is home to some of the best memories you may make.

But more than anything else, in this fast-paced city, just take a few moments, relax in one of the sun-drenched outside bistros, enjoy a slow, languorous meal and see the world pass by. It’s a festivity like no other.

A Different Side

Visit the Las Vegas Spring Preserve, just off the Rancho Drive for botanical gardens, exhibits and nature trails. You can also take a trip to the Hoover Dam, a historic landmark and the largest reservoir by volume in the United States. The Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area offers a break from the neon lights to give you a taste of the desert. Take a road trip in true American style to unwind.

Don’t Forget Downtown

“It’s the place where the local Vegas inhabitants like to hang out,’’ confides a shawarma shop owner on Freemont Strip, home to hip bars, quaint eateries and art galleries. The outdoor area features light shows, concerts and well, obviously, casinos.

Museum Watch

The Mob Museum is a must to get a grip on the enthralling history of the Vegas. The museum offers a glimpse of the gangster era in the U.S.

What is Vegas without its shiny, neon signage? The Neon Museum celebrates the lights of the sin city by displaying old signboards that are not just shiny spectacles, but hold the rich stories behind them.

Foodie Town

Vegas is home to some of the best gourmet experiences, thanks to several celebrity chef restaurants that have cropped up during the past decade. Whether you want to dress to your nines and dine at the Nobu’s or at the Joel Robuchon’s or explore the spirit of the city by eating out at cheaper street food or the delectable food trucks, you will not have a dull foodies’ moment in Las Vegas. There is even a 24-hour Cup Cake ATM!

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