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Wedding tourism in Las Vegas ‘is in trouble’

CARSON CITY — Las Vegas is losing ground as the “wedding capital of the world” as more destinations around the globe try to tap into the business of love and money.

A bill pending in the state Legislature is aimed at reversing that trend by authorizing Clark County commissioners to raise the cost of marriage licenses, with the money earmarked to promote wedding tourism.

“Wedding tourism is a core industry in Las Vegas. It’s part of our international brand,” state Sen. Ruben Kihuen told members of the Assembly Judiciary Commission during a hearing Thursday.

“However, wedding tourism in the wedding capital of the world is in trouble.”

Senate Bill 395, sponsored by Kihuen, D-Las Vegas, would authorize Clark County commissioners to raise the marriage license fee by $14 for a total of $77 — representing a deuce of lucky 7s and a play on Sin City’s gambling heritage.

“We think that’s a great marketing tool for Clark County,” said Clark County Clerk Lynn Goya, who testified in favor of the bill.

SB395 was approved unanimously by the state Senate last week. No action was taken by the Assembly committee.

Lisa Boeres, manager of Little Church of the West, the oldest wedding chapel in Las Vegas, said she supports the effort. The iconic chapel on the Las Vegas Strip has been performing marriages since the early 1940s.

“The tourism industry in general directs their focus on gaming and dining,” Boeres said. “The wedding industry has just been taken for granted that it will remain strong and even flourish.

“Obviously, this is not the case, as indicated by the decline,” she said.

“I would support the marriage license fee increase, as long as the $14 increase goes directly to promoting the wedding industry in Las Vegas.”

Greg Welch, who operates the Riviera Royale Wedding Chapel, isn’t so sure.

He and his wife have run the chapel since 2007. A year later when the recession hit, “everything kind of came crashing down, and it hasn’t come back yet.”

“People are already complaining about the prices of weddings, prices of everything,” Welch said. “We hear it every day.”

Welch has another whammy to contend with. The Riviera is closing May 4 after the property was sold to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

The Las Vegas wedding industry flourished in part because of Nevada’s less restrictive marriage laws that require no blood tests and no waiting period. Where else can couples tie the knot at a drive-thru or recite their vows before Elvis — or at least someone who looks like him? But as other states and countries relaxed their own laws, those factors became less significant to couples seeking a wedding destination.

Goya said the number of marriage licenses issued in the county has plunged 37 percent over the last decade. Last year 80,738 marriage licenses were issued, down from 128,250 in 2004.

That’s an average annual decline of 3,500 and in sharp contrast to the average annual gain of 2,900 realized from 1996 through 2004.

Nevada began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples last fall, but that produced only a slight bump in licenses issued, Goya said.

Marriage license declines also are at odds with robust visitor volumes that have increased over the last 20 years and reached a record 41.13 million last year, she said.

“It’s not the same trend lines at all,” Goya said.

If the bill is passed and county commissioners agree to implement the fee increase, the bulk would be paid by tourists, which accounted for 82 percent of marriage licenses issued in Clark County last year, according to a visitor profile compiled by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority and submitted to lawmakers.

The report estimated wedding tourism in 2014 contributed $2 billion to the Las Vegas-area economy, down from $3.1 billion in 2004. Likewise, the $69 million generated in tax revenue for local and state coffers last year was $30 million less than the $109 million a decade earlier.

Marriage license fees alone accounted for $5 million last year, with nearly $2.7 million going to the Clark County general fund, $2 million to a fund to aid victims of domestic violence, and $316,458 to the state.

Goya said raising the fee to $77 would put Las Vegas somewhere in the middle of what other domestic cities charge. A license costs $90 in Los Angeles, $87 in Santa Barbara, $76 in Phoenix and $60 in Hawaii.

New York City only charges $33, but as Republican state Sen. Greg Brower of Reno noted in a Senate hearing, a wedding there costs tens of thousands of dollars and a couple may be hard pressed to find an Elvis impersonator to officiate over the ceremony.

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