Research by the American Gaming Association (AGA) shows more people feel comfortable about visiting a casino in 2021. However, that interest is still not close to what it was prior to the COVID-19 pandemic that has crippled the hospitality sector.
However, AGA President and CEO Bill Miller is confident that interest will continue to grow as the year goes on, saying “There’s huge pent-up demand for gaming” from the public.
“I’m upbeat about the second half of the year in particular,” he said. “As vaccines roll out, people will be excited to travel, hungry for entertainment, and desperate to get out and have fun again.”
That’s why the trade group has an agenda focused on one goal – fast-tracking the gaming industry’s recovery. To accomplish that, the association will need help from Washington.
The AGA wants Congress to pass additional COVID relief packages. That should include liability protections, as well as investing in travel and tourism. The group also hopes it can find friendly voices within the White House and on Capitol Hill to spur reforms, alleviate regulatory burdens, and eliminate fiscal burdens, including tax policies it considers obsolete.
Planned Casino Visits Still Down from 2019 Totals
Last week, the AGA reported that, according to its research, 80 percent of “future casino visitors” believe the industry has done well in terms of safely reopening casinos during the COVID pandemic.
The association’s COVID tracker showed only 78 of the country’s 997 tribal and commercially licensed venues remain closed. A glance at the corresponding map shows nearly all of the still-closed venues are in the southwestern US. Tribal venues make up most of the closed facilities.
Because of social distancing guidelines, casinos have taken such steps as installing physical barriers between machines or seats. They’ve also redesigned gaming floors to either increase distance between stations or rearrange games to promote greater distancing between players. States still enforce capacity limits, with others also keeping curfews in place.
The AGA said, again according to its research, that 1-in-3 adults plan to visit a US casino this year. That’s the highest percentage the AGA has tracked since the start of the crisis nearly 11 months ago. However, it still represents a 25 percent decline from an AGA study released nearly 18 months ago during the 2019 Global Gaming Expo.
At the 2019 G2E, the association reported 44 percent of US adults visited a casino in 2019. At the time, 49 percent said they planned to gamble at one in the ensuing 12 months.
Tax Incentives, Credits Key to Recovery
Miller last week also sent a letter to Congress outlining the industry’s priorities for “2021 and beyond.”
Not surprisingly, most of that is related to COVID-19, as the association noted estimates indicating the industry saw its economic impact contract by more than $100 billion last year. To help mitigate that loss, Miller told Congress the AGA wants tax credits and incentives, as well as short-term liability protections.
In particular, casinos want an extension of the Work Opportunity Tax Credit to cover those returning to work through the end of 2021. They also seek to offset costs encountered to protect employees and patrons as part of the reopening process.
The idea has a cadre of support on Capitol Hill with the Congressional Gaming Caucus, which is chaired by US Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.). She said the industry’s recovery is also essential for her district, which covers downtown Las Vegas and the Strip.
Casinos on the Las Vegas Strip reported gross gaming revenues of just $3.7 billion in 2020. That represented a 43 percent drop from 2019 and the worst year since 1999.
I will keep pushing my legislation to empower the Economic Development Administration to promote travel and tourism when and where it is safe to do so,” she said in a statement to Casino.org. “Moreover, I remain committed to ensuring that the entire travel and tourism industry has a seat at the table in the ongoing discussions about additional pandemic relief in order to bring good-paying jobs back to downtown Las Vegas and the Strip.”
The legislation Titus mentioned was the Healthy and Safe Travel Promotion Act she filed last July. The bill would provide grants to tourism-reliant communities to promote the steps taken to ensure visitor safety.
AGA Renews Old Priorities, Too
Besides COVID policies, the AGA continues to press Congress to update tax policies it calls antiquated. That includes revising the slot machine tax reporting threshold, which has been set at $1,200 for more than five decades. The association believes that should be raised to $5,000. A threshold that high reduces administrative costs and improves efficiencies for casinos and the government.
The association also wants Congress to repeal a .25 percent excise tax on US licensed sportsbooks. The tax, the AGA said, serves as an extra cost legal sportsbooks must pay that illegal and offshore books do not. The group claims it also produces minimal revenue compared to the administrative work it imposes on businesses.
The AGA again announced its opposition to any effect to use Nevada’s Yucca Mountain as a depository for nuclear waste. The controversial site, which did not receive federal funding for revitalization this year, is just 90 minutes from Las Vegas. Miller said in the letter that transporting radioactive waste presents a huge risk to Las Vegas.
“Moreover, with taxes on Nevada’s tourism industry providing 42 percent of the state general fund, even a modest decline in visitors’ perception of the region could have severe negative implications for the state’s economy and future growth,” he said.
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