01/02/2004 1:00AM

It's official: Slump is over


With over 300,000 people jamming Las Vegas Boulevard - closing the Strip from Sahara Avenue to Russell Road at the end of Mandalay Bay casino - the new year came ringing in with a fireworks display and a celebration that rivals the one in New York's Times Square.

And now that the new year is here, we reflect on 2003.

The biggest story of 2003 for Las Vegas was the recovery of the city's No. 1 industry - tourism.

Although the tourism-based economy of Las Vegas faced several challenges during 2003, millions of visitors returned to this desert oasis. The just-recovering national economy, the war in Iraq, continued terrorist worries, and even the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome contributed to travel concerns for many. But that didn't keep tourism in Las Vegas from bouncing back to pre-9/11 levels after a couple of down years.

While the final numbers are still being tallied, through October 29.9 million people had visited Las Vegas in 2003. That puts tourism numbers on track to break the record of 35.8 million that came to Las Vegas in 2000. And, even with tighter security restrictions at the airport, McCarran International was also ahead of last year's pace in visitor count.

Confidence in the continued growth of Las Vegas was also shown by the city's biggest gaming companies. The 1.5 million-square-foot Mandalay Bay Convention Center opened. That $236 million project complemented the addition of 43 stories of rooms at Mandalay at a cost of another $230 million.

The Venetian added $45 million worth of convention space and the $275 million Venezia tower. Plans are in the works for new multimillion-dollar hotel towers at the MGM Grand, Bellagio, and Caesars Palace megaresorts.

And, developer Steve Wynn is still on track with his $2 billion Wynn Las Vegas project, which will be built this year.

Local casino giants Coast Casinos and Station Casinos both announced expansion plans last year to existing complexes as well as new projects. Station Casinos has Red Rock Station and Coast Casinos has the Southcoast project, both to be built this year.

In other news from 2003, the housing boom continued in Las Vegas, and the State Legislature approved an $800 million tax increase.

Violations of Nevada's strict money-laundering regulations produced a record $5 million fine for the Mirage. Park Place Entertainment agreed to a $75,000 fine last year for violating transaction-report regulations in 2000 and 2001.

Major casino sales last year included MGM Mirage's Golden Nugget casino in downtown Las Vegas for a reported $215 million to an ownership group headed by Travelscape.com founders Tim Poster and Tom Breitling, former International Game Technology chairman Chuck Mathewson, and tennis champ Andre Agassi. Planet Hollywood chairman Robert Earl put together a group that won the bid from bankruptcy court for the $1 billion Aladdin, which will become the Planet Hollywood Casino resort in 2004.

With 2003 having put Las Vegas's No. 1 industry back on track, 2004 is shaping up to be perhaps the best year for tourism ever.

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