Less than two years after non-stop airline service was launched from Tokyo to Las Vegas, L.A. officials are concerned that the move is hurting the local tourism industry.

It used to be that Japanese tourists who wanted to go to Vegas pretty much had to make a stop in L.A. But that's changed in the past 18 months as more Japanese tourists are flying directly to the gambling mecca on an increasing number of non-stop flights offered by Northwest Airlines and Japan Air Lines.

"If these flights prove profitable over the long run, this has the potential to really catch fire, and then we would really have a challenge on our hands," said George Kirkland, president and chief executive of the Los Angeles Convention & Visitors Bureau. "This could spread to other Asian countries. And if we cannot make sure these tourists have to get to Las Vegas through L.A., then we lose big-time."

At stake is one of the largest blocks of tourists coming to L.A. Last year, 680,000 Japanese tourists visited the city, according to the Convention & Visitors Bureau. That's down 20 percent from the 1997 high of 848,000.

Much of that decrease can be attributed to the economic downturn in Japan and the rest of Asia. But officials say that some of the decline especially the drop of 67,000 Japanese tourists from 1998 to 1999 could be due to the non-stop flights from Tokyo to Las Vegas.

In October 1998, Northwest and Japan Air Lines launched non-stop service from Tokyo's Narita International Airport to Las Vegas with a total of four weekly flights. That has now grown to eight flights and could soon lead to daily non-stop flights by both carriers.

In the beginning, Northwest's flights were non-stop both ways, while Japan Air Lines offered non-stop service only from Tokyo to Las Vegas. Northwest added one more weekly non-stop flight in November 1998, while Japan Air Lines has added three more weekly non-stop flights.

"We started this because Las Vegas is a very popular destination with the Japanese and it represents a good business opportunity," said Irene Jackson, a spokeswoman for Japan Air Lines in New York.

Neither airline would release statistics on the number of passengers using the service but said that growing demand was the reason for increasing the number of flights.

In 1997, before the direct non-stop flights began, 403,000 Japanese tourists visited Las Vegas, according to the Las Vegas Convention Authority. That number was almost double the 1994 figure of 221,000. However, as occurred with L.A., the number of Japanese tourists dropped in 1998 to 342,000; last year's figures will not be available until May.

The decision to launch non-stop flights to Las Vegas was also prompted by a new bilateral agreement between the United States and Japan that opened up several new U.S. cities to direct flights from Japan, including Las Vegas. Prior to the 1998 agreement, Japanese tourists wanting to visit the Nevada city had to clear U.S. Customs in L.A. or San Francisco. While that didn't keep record numbers of Japanese visitors from flocking to Las Vegas, tourism officials there believed they could get an even bigger piece of the pie if non-stop flights were instituted from Tokyo.

"We pushed really hard for this agreement," said William Mahaffey, director of transportation for the Las Vegas Transportation Authority. "We wanted Las Vegas to become another gateway for Japanese tourists."

That is what L.A. tourism officials fear and the reason why Kirkland and other LACVB officials made a trip to Japan and several other Asian countries last month.

"On that trip, at the top of everybody's list was Las Vegas," Kirkland said. "We must try to preserve our gateway status and that is why we've stepped up our public relations profile in Japan. We are letting them know that if they were in L.A. 10 years ago, it's not the same city it was back then."

An even bigger concern is what will happen if non-stop flights start from other Asian countries to Las Vegas.

"While Japan may not be a major gambling community, others in East Asia are," Kirkland said. "The Taiwanese and the Chinese can be huge gamblers. And we need to make sure that they have to get to Las Vegas through L.A."

Right now, United Airlines and Northwest have one-stop flights from China to Las Vegas.

But there appears to be wider interest in direct flights to Las Vegas throughout Asia. About 25 percent of the passengers on the current non-stop flights from Tokyo come from other areas of East Asia, including China, Singapore and Taiwan, according to Northwest Airlines international flights spokesman Doug Killian.

"With the comeback of the Asian economies, and the fact that you have newer long-range aircraft like the Boeing 777, there are distinct possibilities for non-stop flights to Las Vegas from Singapore, Taipei and Hong Kong," Killian said. "And because Tokyo's airport is becoming increasingly congested, the pressure will only grow for those flights."

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