Fuel prices seen dampening recovery in visitation

The local economy has almost recovered to 2007 levels in terms of visitor volume, though rising fuel prices jeopardize further gains in visitors this year, UNLV economist Steve Brown said Friday.

Gaming revenue remains 10 percent below prerecession times and construction is not yet ready to contribute to any improvement in the economy, said Brown, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

The center's Southern Nevada Index of Leading Economic Indicators signaled a continued slow recovery, increasing by 0.13 percent in February to 687.87. Gains from neighboring states of Arizona and California, along with a 1.7 percent increase in the Standard & Poor's 500 index, drove the growth.

The center has changed the way it calculates the index, taking a closer look at the California and Arizona index, McCarran International Airport passengers and the S&P index.

"With the revisions, the index should provide a clearer picture of the economic outlook over coming months," said Ryan Kennelly, a graduate assistant at the center.

The index no longer tracks data from the gaming industry, building permits, taxable sales, gallons of gasoline, visitor volume and convention attendance.

"These factors are important to the Southern Nevada economy, but they don't help predict future economic activity," Kennelly said.

McCarran passenger traffic fell 0.2 percent to 3.48 million in December, which is one of the weaker months for tourism in Las Vegas.

Brown said gaming revenue has not kept pace with the run-up in visitors, and is back where it was before 2000.

"In terms of how many additional dollars people come here with, we had a lot of people coming from California who were using their houses as piggy banks for gaming," he said. "That's no longer happening."

Rising fuel prices will add to expenses, and reduce money available for gaming, for visitors coming not only by automobile from California, but also by air, Brown said. Airlines are already "running lean," so they'll have to raise fares. That's $10 to $20 less going to the casinos, he said.

Contact reporter Hubble Smith at hsmith@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0491.