Atlantic City’s recent woes provide a lesson for any destination hoping to find gold in the glitter of casino development. By last month, four of the New Jersey beach city’s 12 casinos were closed, with two more reportedly teetering. Some 8,000 people are now out of work.
The key point: Casinos are a manufactured tourist attraction. Usually, their architecture, decor, and guest experience have nothing to do with their geographical location—no inherent link to the character of the destination. (Indeed, they often try to evoke some other place, theme-park style. For some reason, Italy seems to rank high in providing such fake ambiance, from Caesar to the Renaissance to Venice.)
Without sense-of-place as a unique selling point, any destination dependent on casinos is vulnerable to new competitors in more convenient, cheaper locations.
That’s what happened to Atlantic City.
The resort city had been on the decline in the early 1970s. By then, it was known mainly for its street names featured on the Monopoly game board and the Miss America beauty pageant, itself a franchise of shrinking prominence. Introduced in 1976, casinos were to be the city’s salvation.
For nearly a generation, they were. Atlantic City was monopoly come true: the only legal gambling destination east of the Mississippi.
But laws changed, and new casinos sprouted in neighboring states and on Indian reservations. Adding to all this new competition, the strain of the 2008 financial collapse signaled the beginning of the end for the tiring gambling mecca. During the years of casino success, the city had failed to develop its character in other ways, to make itself inherently an interesting, attractive place to visit and live. It depended on the monoculture of gaming, a fatal error.
Even at their height, Atlantic City casinos attracted a large proportion of day trippers, people who rode in on buses from Philadelphia, Baltimore, or New York just for a few hours of gambling. They didn’t buy hotel rooms, dinners, breakfasts, or much of anything else. Many didn’t even go to the beach. The economic juice came almost solely from staffing and supplying casinos.
Casinos tend to be generic, hardly ever reflective of the locale. They do not attract tourists interested in the place; they attract people who want to gamble. Given the relentlessly increasing demand for beach tourism, there are few seaside cities that really need casinos for economic success. What’s more, the casino scene may deter more desirable overnight tourists who are looking for a less glitz and more focus on the pleasures of he shore.
Atlantic City shows that casino success may be fleeting. Long term, casinos are a bad bet for places that have their own inherent and distinctive attractions such as scenery, nature, and history.
Such destinations would be wise not to go “all in.”