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Reality behind the desert dream

Las Vegas majors on breathtaking statistics. It has a population of 1.5 million, and 40 million people visit the city every year; almost one American in two has been there.

To house its pilgrims, Las Vegas has more hotel rooms than any other US city - twice as many as New York, for example - and it has 15 of the 20 biggest hotels in the world. Several have more than 3,000 rooms; one, the MGM Grand, has 5,000. Many go for themes: the Excalibur is a fairy castle, New York-New York has its own Manhattan skyline, and the Venetian boasts the canals of Venice, complete with gondolas, singing gondoliers and its own Piazza San Marco.

Then there are the wedding chapels, where an Elvis impersonator will bless your union with anything from "Blue Suede Shoes" to "Heartbreak Hotel".

"How tacky," is the usual response. But "tacky" implies a level of cheap small-mindedness that just doesn't fit the city that used to showcase, simultaneously, Elvis and Sinatra, and where the current headline act is Celine Dion. Rather, it is "wonderful excess", as Noel Coward described Las Vegas in 1955.

This city, though, is all about gambling. In 1931 Nevada became the first US state to legalise casino-style gambling. The early story was of links to organised crime, but since the 1980s Las Vegas has worked to shed that image; what used to be "the gambling racket" is now, in a subtle change, "the gaming industry".

In the same way, you can hardly apply the term "gambling joint" to a plush hotel-casino with anything up to a dozen styled and themed restaurants. As one local puts it: "They are there so you can more easily give your money away to rich people."

People spend their money 24 hours a day in the huge hotel-casinos, where there are no windows or clocks to remind you that it may be time to eat or sleep.

In 2001 Nevada's casinos raked in a gross revenue of $18 billion (pound;11.4 billion), of which $550 million (pound;348 million) was net profit.Most of this came from the hotel-casinos on the Las Vegas "Strip".

(Half the takings are from gambling, and half from hotel income, including rooms, restaurants and bars.) This money provides 85 per cent of Nevada's tax income, and enables the state to operate without state income tax.

Commitment to low taxes, though, means social provision is compromised, and the state has some of the worst figures for suicide, divorce, rape, bankruptcy, child abuse and school drop-out rates.

Some Nevada legislators want to increase the tax on gambling profits from the current 6.25 per cent to 6.75 per cent. Unsurprisingly, this is opposed by the leaders of the casino industry, who have on their side an influential state-sponsored report that suggests Nevada depends too heavily on one source of taxes.

It is a never-ending argument, but such is the power of the casino lobby that no one is holding their breath waiting for a substantial increase in gambling tax.

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