06/08/2001 12:00AM

Energy woes can't stop the crowds

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They came, they saw, and some even conquered.

Rising gasoline prices, higher energy costs, and a slowing economy didn't stop visitors from partying in Las Vegas over the Memorial Day weekend. Even the continuing brownouts in neighboring California didn't stop residents from that state from taking that four-day break to southern Nevada for a little R and R.

The official figures have yet to be tallied, but preliminary indications point to a record turnout at Las Vegas hotel-casinos for the first big weekend of summer.

About 274,000 visitors flocked to Las Vegas over Memorial Day weekend, compared with the 270,000 that jammed the Strip last year. The 1.5 percent increase was a slowdown in growth from the 9 percent gain from 1999 (248,000) to last year.

That slowdown of tourist growth is being attributed largely to a lack of recent resort construction compared with the boom of the last few years. The increase in tourism on Memorial Day weekend last year was a response to four mega-resorts opening over two years. The room count for the city has risen to more than 124,000, and nearly all of them were full for Memorial weekend.

Energy concerns and a weaker economy have prompted the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority to reduce its visitor projections for the year. But the visitor count for the four-day Memorial weekend was still a record, and that's a consolation to LVCVA officials.

"We have forecasted a slower growth rate than last year, but it's still a growth rate," said LVCVA spokesman Kevin Bagger.

How did the visitors get here? Many, despite high gas prices, drove up I-15 from Southern California. McCarran International Airport reported that an estimated 450,000 passengers - not all necessarily headed for Las Vegas - rolled through McCarran International Airport from Thursday through Monday.

All the major hotel-casino companies reported strong demand for rooms, restaurants, shopping, and other non-gaming activities. The Forum Shops at Caesars Palace reported more than 400,000 visits to the upscale retail mall, and many of those people surely contributed to the $183 million in non-gaming revenue dropped in Las Vegas over the holiday weekend.

All the rooms were filled at the resorts owned by the giant gaming companies, including MGM Mirage (MGM Grand, Bellagio, New York-New York, the Mirage, and Treasure Island), Park Place Entertainment (the Hiltons, Caesars Palace, Bally's, and Paris), and the Mandalay Resort Group (Circus Circus, Excalibur, Mandalay Bay, and Luxor).

And, the city's race and sports books reflected the capacity crowds as well, thanks to holiday racing cards and the NBA conference finals.

With perhaps the worst of the energy problems over and tax rebates scheduled for mailings as early as next month, the remainder of the Las Vegas summer tourist season would appear to be immune to any additional swings of the economy.

One unidentified vacationer, overheard while watching the races with one eye, sports with the other0, said a weakening economy could work in favor of Las Vegas. He reasoned that those who were planning an expensive vacation may now scale back and take a "few grand to Vegas instead of that 10-dime tour in Europe," and that the middle-class vacationers "will always take that trip to Vegas."

As he finished his beer, ripped up his three-teamer and headed off to "at least" cash his quinella box, he said: "Americans will always find the money to take a vacation - somewhere."

Las Vegas seems to be that somewhere - for now.

Ralph Siraco is turf editor for the Las Vegas Sun and host of the RaceDay Las Vegas radio show