Image: Caesars Palace hotel-casino
Jae C. Hong  /  AP
Hotel guests walk past a Buddha statue at the Caesars Palace hotel-casino in Las Vegas.
updated 2/16/2007 3:50:36 PM ET 2007-02-16T20:50:36

Every January or February there is a surge in action on the baccarat tables and the Las Vegas Strip turns a festive red, decorated with dragons and Chinese characters.

Looking for a lucky start to the year, Chinese tourists make the pilgrimage to the desert for Chinese New Year to put their fates to the test.

Even this year, with the NBA All-Star game in town and a President’s Day holiday falling on the same weekend, casino executives are keeping their eye on the prize — the hundreds of millions of dollars wagered by Asian players.

“This is our 32nd year of doing Chinese New Years. I’d say the Chinese New Year was more important,” said John Unwin, general manager of Caesars Palace.

The fortunes of large casino operators are increasingly tied to the Chinese consumer and the gambling companies’ developments in the Chinese special administrative region of Macau, which became the most lucrative gambling destination in the world last year.

Las Vegas still gets its share of the action. Last year, the amount Strip casinos won off baccarat — played mostly by Asians — grew 25 percent to $832 million, second only to blackjack at $986 million, according to Nevada regulators.

A year ago when Chinese New Year was celebrated in January, players wagered $827 million on Strip baccarat tables during the month, losing $90.9 million, more than was lost at either blackjack, craps or roulette.

In contrast, the All-Star game is expected to attract 25,000 visitors and generate $26.7 million in non-gambling economic activity, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

Image: Preparing for the Chinese New Year
Jae C. Hong  /  AP file
Worker Mel Maldonado unrolls a banner in a storage room as he prepares for the Chinese New Year decorations at the Caesars Palace hotel-casino in Las Vegas.
“The first quarter is traditionally the strongest quarter in Las Vegas,” said Brad Stone, executive vice president at Las Vegas Sands Corp., which owns The Venetian casino resort and is building seven projects in Macau. “Certainly one of the things that fuels that is the Chinese New Year celebration.”

The Year of the Pig celebration starting Sunday brings to Las Vegas famous Asian performers and dragon dances are scheduled at properties across the Strip.

The two-week celebration also draws the year’s highest rollers, said Caesars Palace vice president of table games, Jimmy Wike. These are players who can bet the maximum of $150,000 per hand, and by casino rules must have deposits or credit lines worth at least $3 million, he said.

“This event caters to the very biggest players in the world,” Wike said.

Two years ago, Las Vegas Sands retrofitted The Venetian with a $50 million luxury upgrade called the Paiza Club, an invitation-only, Chinese-themed gambling salon that is similar to its club at the Sands Macao.

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For some of the biggest gamblers, chartered jumbo jets, personal limousine service and a 24-hour butler all come with a complimentary suite. Five of them, the 8,000-square-foot Chairman Suites, were designed with the help of a feng shui master. Las Vegas Sands caters to its important patrons by flying in its top chefs from China to prepare meals, such as shark’s fin or bird’s nest soup.

At Strip properties owned by MGM Mirage Inc., such as Bellagio or The Mirage, service staff and executives stuff their jacket pockets with red envelopes with money inside, sometimes as little as $1 or as much as $100, to give to Chinese guests along with the new year’s greeting: “gung hei fat choi” (Cantonese for “Congratulations and be prosperous”).

“That is just a sign of respect,” said MGM Mirage chief executive Terry Lanni. “It’s important for you to share, at this time, your wealth with others. Everyone carries this. Because if you walk up and someone gives you one and you don’t give them one back, it’s an insult.”

MGM Mirage’s sensitivity to Chinese culture is built into its Las Vegas resorts. Mandalay Bay’s hotel towers go directly from the 39th floor to the 60th to avoid unlucky numbers in the 40s and 50s. There are 31 luxury villas at The Mansion in MGM Grand, but the numbers go from one to 34, bypassing unlucky 8, 18 and 28.

“Seven’s all right. Eight. You don’t want to look at eight. You don’t see eights in any of our villas,” Lanni said.

Executives believe such measures will ensure free-spending Chinese tourists continue making gambling trips from abroad, despite Macau’s growth. Once In Las Vegas, they hope their visitors will gravitate to familiar brands.

Mickey Peng, a 32-year-old fashion company owner from the booming Chinese port of Shenzhen, fits the profile. During the two-week holiday, she’ll hit both coasts — her trip has taken her from Hawaii to Los Angeles to Las Vegas and she’s headed to New York.

Peng is a regular gambler in Macau, where she’s often played baccarat at the Sands Macao. Here, Peng emerged from The Mansion baccarat room at MGM Grand, where the minimum bet is $100 per hand.

“In Macau, only the casinos are good. I don’t see any other things,” she said. “Here there are so many shops, many high-end shops. ... We went to the Grand Canyon yesterday. It was very exciting.”

Slideshow: Around the World Ninety percent of all Chinese visitors to the United States spend some part of their trip in Nevada, said Bruce Bommarito, the vice president of international market development for the Travel Industry Association of America. When the number of visitors is calculated from last year, tourism from China is expected to have risen 18 percent from 2005, Bommarito said. In 2005, 405,000 Chinese visited the United States, a 24 percent increase from a year earlier, according to the U.S. Commerce Department.

Peng said when she toured the Strip and noticed Chinese New Year decorations at every hotel-casino, she was surprised.

“Before I came here, I thought people don’t know China well,” she said. “But when I came here I found so many Chinese people work here, and so many Chinese people are gambling here. China is getting more and more important in the world.”

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Welcome to Vegas

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  1. Welcome to Las Vegas

    The Bellagio's fountain show entertains visitors nightly. In the background is Bally's Las Vegas, left, and Paris Las Vegas, which has a 50-story Eiffel Tower replica in front. Over 37.5 million people visit Las Vegas each year. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Fremont Street Experience

    Located in downtown Las Vegas, this exciting pedestrian promenade is home to approximately 16 million lights, making it one of the largest LED screens in the world. (Brian Jones / Las Vegas News Bureau) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Looking for Lady Luck

    Casion visitors play slot machines at the Mirage Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Dunking Elvis

    An Elvis impersonator performs a slam dunk during the 2007 NBA All-Star Game on February 18, 2007, at Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas. (Jesse D. Garrabrant / NBAEGetty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Grand casinos

    Lights from passing vehicles are seen in front of the MGM Grand Hotel/Casino in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Poker face

    Jamie Gold, right, of California and Paul Wasicka of Colorado go head-to-head on the final table of the World Series of Poker no-limit Texas Hold 'em main event at the Rio Hotel & Casino on Aug. 11, 2006, in Las Vegas. Gold outlasted more than 8,700 other poker players to win the top prize of $12 million. Wasicka won just over $6.1 million for finishing second. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Glitz and glamour

    A Canon display is seen inside the Las Vegas Convention Center at the Consumer Electronics Show. Las Vegas is the nation's top business travel destination, with easy airline access, numerous hotel rooms, low rates, plentiful convention facilities and a wide range of dining and entertainment options. (Karl Polverino / Zuma Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Over-the-top entertainment

    Performers ride a Volkswagen Beetle across the stage during a preview of "The Beatles LOVE by Cirque du Soleil" at the Mirage Hotel & Casino on June 27, 2006, in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. A New York minute

    The New York-New York Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas recreates the Manhattan skyline, complete with replicas of the Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building and Brooklyn Bridge. (Courtesy of MGM MIRAGE) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Entertainment mecca

    Kenny Chesney performs "Out Last Night" at the 44th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards in Las Vegas on April 5, 2009. (Mark J. Terrill / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Tying the knot

    From left, Elvis Presley impersonator Norm Jones plays guitar as Bruce Barnett of Virginia Beach, Va., escorts his daughter Gayle to her wedding ceremony at the Graceland Wedding Chapel in Las Vegas, Nevada. Graceland is the oldest wedding chapel in Las Vegas and offers ceremonies with or without Elvis impersonators. (David Mcnew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Explosive attraction

    The $25 million, newly redesigned volcano display in front of the Mirage Hotel & Casino features 150 choreographed FireShooters sending fireballs more than 12 feet in the air and a custom soundtrack created by Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart and Indian tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images for MGM Mirage) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A night on the Strip

    Hotels and casinos line the Las Vegas Strip. From thrilling roller coasters to erupting volcanos to art museums, Las Vegas' many attractions appeal to people of all ages and interests. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Fight night

    David Diaz and Manny Pacquiao fight during the fourth round of the WBC Lightweight Championship at the Mandalay Bay Events Center on June 28, 2008, in Las Vegas. Pacquiao won in a ninth-round knockout. (Harry How / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Day at the races

    Rookie driver Shawn Langdon earned his first No. 1 qualifying position of his career at the NHRA Nationals at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway on April 4, 2009, in Las Vegas. (Richard Wong / NHRA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Fabulous shopping

    The Juicy Couture retail store at The Forum Shops at Caesars Palace is seen before the grand opening February 5, 2009, in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images for Juicy Couture) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Stunning shows

    Buyi Zama as “Rafiki” in the opening number “The Circle of Life” from THE LION KING Las Vegas. (Joan Marcus / Disney) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. A slice of Italy

    Visitors take a gondola ride at The Venetian in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Get into the groove

    Dina Buell, left, and Carla Giordano, both from California, dance at the pool at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino during Rehab, the resort's weekly pool party, in 2005 in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Let’s get this party started

    Party goers gather for the grand opening of LAX Nightclub Las Vegas in 2007. (Chris Weeks / WireImage) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Big laughs

    Comedian Ellen DeGeneres performs at a taping of ''Ellen's Even Bigger Really Big Show'' during The Comedy Festival at The Colosseum at Caesars Palace in 2008 in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. A kingly stay

    The Excalibur Hotel and Casino features a castle motif with newly refurbished hotel rooms. (Courtesy of MGM MIRAGE) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. A dancing fountain

    Visitors are silhouetted against the backdrop of The Bellagio's fountain show on the Las Vegas Strip. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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