Maybe due to the fact that I had heard and read a lot about the city, I have very clear memories of our stay in Las Vegas – beginning with our arrival on Las Vegas Boulevard and my immediate fascination with the city. Love it or hate it, they say. You’ll be blinded by its grandeur, that’s for sure. And as I have explained before, I decided to love Las Vegas the minute I entered the city boundaries. I am intrigued by any kind of modern architecture and I regard artificiality as a kind of art. Or, in other words, I was not looking for authenticity in Las Vegas at all. I found it nevertheless. But let’s start from the beginning.
Gamblers’ Paradise, situated in the desert of Nevada, is authentic in its very own way. It is very unique although many of its most famous buildings are copies of – or, as I would prefer – tributes to sights you will find around the world: The Pyramids of Old Egypt are mirrored in Luxor Hotel, the canal system of Venice can be explored at the Venetian, the Statue of Liberty overlooks the Las Vegas Boulevard from the New York, New York hotel – surrounded by a breath-taking rollercoaster, a medieval castle in comic-style at Excalibur and statues imitating those of Old Rome at Caesar’s Palace pay tribute to a history that the American continent never knew. Add love for modern architecture and buildings built only to show off as well as some midcentury nostalgia, and voilà: Vegas.
At all times, humans have built tributes or named placed after things that were there already. In terms of architecture, historicism and neoclassicism are classic examples of that urge: Nearly all buildings you’ll find in Washington, D.C., are built as homages to Greek or Roman architecture. Venice Beach, a beach town in the greater area of Los Angeles, has its name because it resembles the canal system you will find in Italy. And of course, the early American immigrants tended to name their colonies after places they knew back in Old Europe. In that tradition, Las Vegas is history repeated.
Many critics of Las Vegas unrightfully reproach the city for imitating others without giving back. They sarcastically state that you do not have to travel the world if you can go to Vegas. Ironic as this statement is, there is some truth in it as well: A great part of the American people has never traveled overseas; more than 60 percent of the population does not even own a passport. Yet they know a lot about their own country. The sheer vastness of the American continent and the great distances that can be covered without ever leaving the country borders diminish the urge to travel – as going abroad is more expensive and takes a long time – going any further than Mexico or Canada, that is. It is a crucial difference to take a three-hour flight to get to the Pyramids of Egypt or German castles or spend ten hours and more in a plane just to travel there. For many, the time needed for the journey would be more than they’d actually spend at one of these sights. And why bother with travel exertions if there is so much to see in your own country?
In Las Vegas, America has thus established a collection of touristic symbols that cannot easily be accessed otherwise. This is nothing but legitimate. More than that: I assume that every visitor of the desert city knows that he is visiting duplicates – Las Vegas does not pretend to be authentic. Las Vegas is, humorously regarded, a museum displaying parts of the world and lurking people with its promise of fortune and happiness. The city makes a promise of sophistication. If you go there, you’ll be a world citizen for the time of your stay. The chance is small to win enough money to travel the world in real but it is evident. Tourists that never leave their own country borders can delve into another world and inhabit the world. It may sound strange but this city, which is famous for its copies and in which having fun is a top priority, is more authentic than many assume. It is a completely artificial hideaway for fun-seeking sightseers. Thus, it is the Disneyland of the tourist.
When the boyfriend and I walked Las Vegas Boulevard on our first evening we did not feel any different than in an amusement park. There was a different show on every corner, a distraction every few meters. On a quest for fun and action we strolled through the hotels, had a look at the windows of expensive designer boutiques in Caesar’s Palace and watched the water and light show in front of the Bellagio together with hundreds of other visitors. We laughed about the ‘canals’ of the Venetian and the ‘real’ gondolas on the water and had a look at the Eiffel Tower at Paris Las Vegas, which I had never seen in real until then. Studies prove that the perception of symbols can shift if seen in another surrounding. When I first saw the Eiffel Tower some time later, I was disappointed by its appearance. I cannot say if the reason for my frustration was the earlier encounter with the Las Vegas copy or the fact that I had so often seen the Parisian landmark on pictures that it felt like something very familiar.
The American Eiffel Tower and all the other symbols lining the Las Vegas Boulevard are touristic symbols, constructed to be consumed. Tourism basically is nothing but consuming symbols. Sights are symbols. Places can be symbolic. Las Vegas is a symbol of symbols. If it weren’t for the constant jingle of slot machines and falling coins from jukeboxes one could easily get lost in that world. The gambling gets you back to reality: After all, you are in Las Vegas. This isn’t real. Well, it is, but on another level of reality.
By the way: We did not gamble on our first evening. None of us plays cards and we both did not think it would be fun to lose our money to professional players. I tried a slot machine the other day and I made 70 dollars out of the first one-dollar-note I put into a one-armed bandit. I could hardly believe my luck. I stopped playing and invited the boy on a drink. That’s how we spent our time in Vegas: Doing nothing mostly, jumping into the pool from time to time, and having cold drinks in the water. We left Las Vegas after three nights and a closing dinner at Hooters. Because yes, we loved the city, but anything that is never-ending gets boring after a while. Even an endless party. And we left because there is so much more to see of the world.