10/07/2005 12:00AM

At $3 a gallon, fuel for thought


The burning question in Las Vegas these days isn't "Should I take the points or give them?" in football games, but rather, How much are the weekend warriors willing to pay for travel to this desert destination?

Mother Nature has contributed to the rising gas prices with her daughters Katrina and Rita, and rising oil prices had already started taking its toll at the pumps before the hurricanes hit.

Nevertheless, a recent survey by the market research firm MRC Group suggesting prices at the pumps will affect Las Vegas tourism was downplayed by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, according to local newspaper reports.

It seems that the magic number for concern is $3 a gallon for gas. The MRC survey revealed that almost half of the drive-in visitors from Southern California - the largest feeder market to this city - may stay home rather than shell out more than three bucks a gallon for the 275-mile drive to Las Vegas. The survey reported that 48 percent of Southern California respondents said higher fuel prices would deter a planned trip to Las Vegas. Half, 51 percent, of those over 21 years old said they are already feeling a budget crunch because of rising gasoline prices, while 58 percent of all respondents said that high fuel prices now affect their decisions on vacations of five days or more. Just about the same number, 57 percent, said it affects even a weekend getaway.

This would seem to be a big concern for the Las Vegas gaming industry, since approximately 10 million visitors to Las Vegas are drive-in customers from Southern California, about 27 percent of the 37.4 million annual visitors here. But, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority differs with the MRC findings.

The authority reports that its own traffic count from Southern California suggests that gas prices haven't slowed the lanes flowing east to Las Vegas. While, according to local reports, gas prices climbed from $1.98 per gallon in January to $2.77 by August in Southern California, traffic rolling through Interstate 15 at the Nevada-California border went from 31,972 vehicles per day in January to 45,767 in August. It should be noted that the highway traffic counts can't determine where these cars are headed - whether Las Vegas or elsewhere.

According to local newspaper articles, the authority believes that, as in the past, tourists adjust their budgets to compensate for the fuel costs rather than canceling a trip to Las Vegas. Many industry observers also concur that the MRC survey may be flawed. Charting the ebb-and-flow of gas prices for over three decades shows no real impact on Las Vegas tourism. With gas prices a part of the disposable budget for a Las Vegas trip, many believe that the $30 to $40 it costs to get here isn't enough to affect travel plans.

And, the survey may not have taken into consideration the marketing efforts of Las Vegas gaming companies to offset the rising gas prices. A current promotion in the town of Primm - on the Nevada-California border - compensates slot club members with $25 in gas if they stay at least two nights.

Although cheap buffets may be a thing of the past, Las Vegas will always find ways to promote the value of playing in the desert. Year-to-date visitor volume is up 3 percent, with convention attendance up 12 percent from the 2004 figures, suggesting that gas prices are not the only thing that is on the rise.

Ralph Siraco is turf editor for the Las Vegas Sun and host of the Race Day Las Vegas radio show.