We went to Las Vegas this past weekend to see a friend get an award. Some may enjoy it, but 44 hours in the trashy canyons of unfettered American capitalism and consumption was way too much for us.
On our return, a link was waiting in my inbox to a Fortune Magazine article about the economic direction that Napa is taking: The Wine Country Tasting Room Is Dead. But Long Live Wine Country. Wine Country is no longer about wine but about tourism entertainment. I couldn't help feeling that Las Vegas had something to tell us about the meaning of that movement from an economy based on a product to one based on tourism.
An article in Business Insider in 2013 dissected the arc of the Las Vegas economy. In 1990, tourism accounted for 40% of Las Vegas's revenue and gaming 60%. It was a gaming economy. By 2012 tourism had become 65% of the economy. .
In the 1980's tourism was seen as a means to make the product economically viable, Visitors were encouraged to come to the casinos with an offer of cheap hotel rooms and food. The object now, represented in the mega-hotels that continue to be built, is to pack as many beds and restaurants and shops and entertainment venues as possible into a consumption-rich environment. Losing money on the slots or tables may still be a draw for some, but Las Vegas now makes most of its money like any other tourist trap - rooms, food, amusements and trinkets.
Napa is currently Las Vegas in the 80's. The "direct-to-consumer" dogma often touted in support of new event center projects pretends that bringing tourists into Napa County is about the survival of the wine industry in a post 3-tier world. In reality the encouragement of Napa winery visitation is about the long term potential for hotel, food and entertainment revenue and, of course, associated transient taxes. County governments now spend millions on Visit Napa Valley promoting hotel stays and the tourism industry, and yet they spend nothing promoting wine sales outside the county to support the actual wine industry.
One only has to look at the quantity of hotel rooms in the development pipeline to realize that at some point in the not too distant future the amount of money taken from hotel stays and TOT will eclipse the amount of money to be made from trying to sell wine. And once the economy is firmly tourism-based, the need to maintain an agricultural environment (and the disinterest in highway construction that has been seen as an agricultural protection) will dissipate. Like Las Vegas, the object will be to pack as many hotel rooms as possible into the tourist destination fiction of "Wine Country" and build the infrastructure needed to keep the visitors coming.
"Agriculture in the 21st Century", in the words of one growth-minded supervisor, may end up looking a lot like Las Vegas.