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Hometown Hospitality

 Photo illustration of a home as a motel
Illustration: Ryan Vellinga
Images: Unsplash

Welcoming visitors comes with living in Vegas. Is there more to it than living in a tourist town?

My first day at work after moving to Vegas, my boss told me to get ready for all the friends and relatives who would suddenly want to pay me a visit. “Get an extra couch for them,” she said. That was the last advice I expected, and I ignored it till I got my first text. It was from a college friend who had moved across the country after graduation.

“Hey! Myself and sis are planning to visit Las Vegas on 21st... will you be able to host? 😜😜”

Of course, I would love to share my single bed and couch for a couple days. It was fun. We explored the Vegas comedy scene. They took a few awesome photos, ate some good food on the Strip, and went home.

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Two weeks later, I got a call with a similar request from a longtime friend. Within a month, it felt like I was running a bed and breakfast out of my one-bedroom apartment. I asked a couple people who had moved here recently if they’d also experienced a sudden influx of visitors, and the answer was always some variation of, “I think I hosted three people at my apartment this month, plus the occasional friend who wanted me to show them around.”

To make sure my sample group wasn’t biased, I asked older people whose families have lived in Henderson for close to a decade. They said they host from 20 to 50 visitors per year. One longtime Vegas resident told me her family has hosted more than 50 this year alone!

This shouldn’t have been a surprise, I see now. Aside from being a highly sought-after tourist destination, Vegas has a special something that makes it a hub for cultural hospitality. The propensity to welcome people is built into the fabric of the city, extending far beyond the Strip.

I believe this has something to do with it being in the desert. Across time and space, desert people have been known for their (figurative) warmth. Absent the luxury of air conditioning, people weathering harsh desert conditions, such as water scarcity and extreme heat, band together to survive. These conditions have created an evolved sense of empathy in desert dwellers, whose customs often include offering passersby a drink of cold water and shaded place to rest on hot days.

Although we’re far removed from desert nomads, Las Vegans embody parts of their ethos — our transience, for instance. No one understands the perils of a journey better than someone who’s on one themselves, particularly in the middle of a desert.

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Seen in this light, Las Vegas’ billion-dollar hospitality industry in the middle of the Mojave Desert makes sense. Vegas welcomed nearly 40 million travelers last year, making it one of the most visited cities in the United States, alongside New York and Miami. However, neither of these two cities is built on survival in an uninhabitable place, and their notions of hospitality, where they exist at all, are remarkably different from ours.

What’s more, our resorts — glorified resting, dining, and entertainment centers — are not the only form of hospitality. Alongside them is locals hospitality, with its home and family touch. In some ways, commercial resorts (as well as the short-term rental business) seek to mimic this personal connection; for instance, by offering all-inclusive packages with pet care and activity recommendations.

But these experiences can’t answer the question of tourists seeking a place’s authentic identity: What’s it like to live here? Local hosts answer that by welcoming someone into their lives and simply being who they are. They respond to the mystery and fascination surrounding Vegas residential life.

As the world moves away from the communal societies that ensured humans’ survival for millennia, toward individualistic cultures that focus less on the overall human condition, people are left with fewer and fewer practices that allow us to tend to one another’s survival. Something as simple as always having an extra blanket for someone with an overnight layover, an extra bottle of cold water for that friend who never brings one, or room in your one-bedroom apartment in case a friend needs to escape a difficult situation … Such acts protect our humanity. And they are part and parcel of desert hospitality.

As Las Vegas reaches for its big-city identity, I hope we can look to our similarities with other desert populations across the world. This can help us realize that a uniquely located group of people whose ability to host weary travelers comes with a privilege: offering respite in a challenging world. And you don’t have to operate a multibillion-dollar resort to participate. You just need a couch.