06/12/2003 11:00PM

It's not just for gambling

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Vacationers continue to flock to Las Vegas despite a flat national economy. But now a detailed survey finds that their reasons for coming are changing.

The MRC Group Research Institute has released its findings from a survey of recent visitors to Las Vegas. Dozens of reasons for visiting were given, from the No. 1 response of sightseeing (38 percent) all the way down to the last reason, getting divorced (1 percent).

The biggest surprise was that gambling, which one would think would be a primary reason for being here, was listed as such by only 17 percent of visitors. Activities that rated higher than gambling include spending time by the pool (29 percent) and going shopping (18 percent).

The broad interests shown by Las Vegas tourists are a strong indicator that gaming-industry marketing is succeeding.

"This distinguishes us from every other gambling destination in the country," said Bill Thompson, a professor at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and an expert on casino gaming. "No one goes to Atlantic City for the sun and shopping or goes to Biloxi, Mississippi, for the entertainment. This is what distinguishes us from every other destination in the world."

While visitors didn't list gambling as their primary reason for being here, more than 87 percent said they engaged in some form of gambling once they got to the city.

The survey proves again that Las Vegas remains unique among gaming destinations.

"Las Vegas has the image of being a gambling mecca, which we are," said Jim Medick, chief executive officer of the MRC Group. "When you look at the other activities drawing visitors here, riverboats and locals casinos just can't compete."

Celebrated Living magazine, published by American Airlines for its first-class and business travelers, recently listed top hotels, golf courses, restaurants, and nightclubs as voted upon by its readers, and Las Vegas is liberally represented.

Two Las Vegas hotels, the Bellagio and the Venetian, were ranked No. 6 and 16 in America, respectively.

Shadow Creek was rated the second-best golf course in the country, behind only Long Island's Bethpage Black, which played host to the U.S. Open last year.

Three restaurants - the Aqua and the Picasso at Bellagio, and the Renoir at Mirage - made the magazine's list, and V Bar at the Venetian was among the top 10 nightclubs.

The MRC survey showed, however, that less-expensive activities, such as visits to Hoover Dam, Red Rock Canyon, and Death Valley, are high on people's wish lists.

Pollsters also found that 30 percent of respondents were first-time visitors to the Las Vegas Strip, and that 54 percent said they enjoyed themselves enough to want to come to Las Vegas again.

"The breadth of activities one can participate in here is a unique selling proposition," said Medick. "It separates us from the competition, the wheat from the chaff, as it were."

Richard Eng is the turf editor for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and host of the Race Day Las Vegas Wrap Up show.