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March 19, 1931: Nevada legalizes gambling, changes its destiny

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March 19, 1931: Nevada legalizes gambling, changes its destiny

Las Vegas went from a sleepy oasis to a glittering metropolis. (Photo: courtesy Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Bureau)

A lightly populated desert state in the early 20th century, Nevada was more of a place people wanted to pass through than one where they wanted to stay a while. Sure, the occasional boomtown sprang up around a mining claim here or there, but those usually went bust eventually.

All that changed dramatically starting in 1931, when state leaders decided to legalize gambling, thus placing their bets on tourism as the state’s future economic engine. And it’s definitely paid off in terms of money, population and visitors: Las Vegas is now one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations, with McCarran International Airport handling almost 42 million passengers in 2013 (not coincidentally, it's Yahoo Travel's most-searched destination). Nevada’s population tripled in the three decades after gambling was legalized, and casinos bring $25 billion a year into the state’s economy.

Of course, there are downsides: Crime (both organized and very disorganized) came along with the influx of gambling money. Population growth has put tremendous pressure on the area’s scarce water resources. And there’s still a boom-and-bust cycle evident in the hit the state’s economy took when tourism dropped off during the recent recession. But there’s no doubt that Nevada’s glittering casinos are beacons for travelers looking to escape into a glamorous fantasy world, if only for a weekend.

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