- Associated Press - Friday, March 21, 2014

LAS VEGAS (AP) - Mary Jo Behnke was sitting on a bench outside a casino here before her flight home to frozen Wisconsin. She wanted to soak up the sun, but she also couldn’t think of much else to do, as the gaming-oriented town can seem a little one-dimensional sometimes.

Shirley Parke, owner of Laughlin River Tours, had such a steep drop in business that she sold one of her tour boats a few years ago and has come close to shutting down.

Laughlin - an unincorporated town of 7,300 - is about 100 miles south of Las Vegas and popular with bargain-hunting retirees who drive in for sometimes months-long getaways to the region. The town, with nine casino-resorts clustered along the banks of the Colorado River, lured 2 million visitors last year and generated $455 million in gambling revenue.

But tourism, the only major industry in Laughlin, has been declining for years, even as Las Vegas bounces back and Mesquite, another small resort destination in the region, stabilized.

Laughlin’s annual visitor volume has fallen 60 percent from 5 million about 15 years ago. Gambling revenue rose to $631 million in 2007 but has dropped every year since.

In Las Vegas, visitor levels fell after the economy collapsed but have rebounded and surpassed the boom years, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

Mesquite’s tourism and gambling action fell hard during the downturn, as well. The community still isn’t close to the boom years, but it hasn’t seen steady declines like in Laughlin.

Laughlin executives are trying to turn things around with some casino and hotel renovations and a new events center. Dean DiLullo, for one, is bullish.

The CEO of Reno-based M1 Gaming, he tried to buy Laughlin’s River Palms casino last year for $7 million cash from investor Carl Icahn’s Tropicana Entertainment, but the deal fell through. DiLullo still wants to own a property here.

He views Laughlin as a true gambling town, more similar to downtown Las Vegas than the glitzy Strip. Visitors come to Laughlin with a bigger gambling budget than in Las Vegas, and they sit at the slots for hours on end.

“It’s a pretty cool town,” DiLullo said, “and I’m pretty much going to be the most enthusiastic person about Laughlin you’ve ever talked to.”

There are plenty of reasons for the sluggishness.

For the most part, Laughlin’s tourists are retirees from Southern California, Arizona, the Midwest and Canada who drive to town, often in their RVs. When gas prices go up, as they have in recent years, tourism slows.

Laughlin offers gambling, outdoor recreation, some concerts and events, and cheap food and lodging, but there doesn’t seem to be much else. Moreover, it’s not easy to get there.

“It’s not on the way to anywhere,” said Parke, the tour operator.

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