LAS VEGAS (AP) — Panda habitats, tea gardens and red pagodas have never been part of the visual vocabulary of the Las Vegas Strip. But Sin City is about to get all three and much more as a Malaysian conglomerate prepares to build the first new mega-casino to come to town since the recession wiped out a slew of projects in 2008.
The Genting Group announced Monday that it will break ground in 2014 on the 87-acre site where the partially built Echelon project has sat for nearly five years, put on indefinite hold by Boyd Gaming Corp.
Executives said they are launching the new project despite continued softness in Las Vegas gambling revenue because they are ideally positioned to capitalize on the flood of Asian tourists flocking to the Strip.
Government officials, including Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval, applauded the news, saying the project could breathe new life into a tired stretch of the tourist corridor where several projects stalled during the recession.
"I think we've turned conventional wisdom on its head today," Sandoval said, adding that he hopes the Genting project will encourage more foreign investment in the Strip.
Genting, Southeast Asia's largest casino operator, will rebrand the languishing structure Resorts World Las Vegas.
Executives say the project is designed to make tourists accustomed to the casinos of Singapore and Malaysia feel at home, and to give American tourists a taste of another culture.
It will feature pagoda-style roofs on soaring glass towers, martial arts performances, regional Chinese cuisine and what officials describe as a more family-friendly atmosphere.
The complex will include at least 3,500 hotel rooms, a convention center and a 4,000-seat theater.
Genting paid $350 million for the property and will spend as much as $7 billion building on it, according to Senior Vice President of Development Christian Goode.
The conglomerate plans to start construction in 2014 and open in 2016, creating tens of thousands of jobs while revamping a project many thought would remain undeveloped for years.
The steel-and-concrete skeleton of the Echelon project has stood on the north Strip since 2008, a symbol of the initial promise and disastrous end of the Las Vegas construction boom.
The area once boasted casinos considered the cutting edge of luxury and style. But in recent years it has become the home of huge empty lots and darkened projects, including Las Vegas Plaza and Fontainebleau Las Vegas, a hulking bluish-green tower that was 70 percent finished when construction ended.
The Genting announcement is the latest sign that the stretch of Las Vegas Boulevard home to Circus Circus and the Stratosphere might be turning around. Developers also broke ground last month on renovations to the Sahara hotel-casino that closed in 2011. It is expected to reopen next year as SLS Las Vegas.
Genting said it will build on the skeleton of the Echelon to create one of the largest complexes on the Las Vegas Strip. By comparison, the CityCenter complex, which features the upscale Aria casino, spreads across 67 acres. Caesars Palace sits on 85 acres.
Las Vegas-based casino companies have been scrambling for years to cash in on the influx of Asian tourists into the Chinese gambling enclave of Macau. But Genting believes it can turn that same stream of tourists into big moneymaker back in Las Vegas.
"As China develops and grows their economy, there's a burgeoning middle class and they want to travel," Goode said. "We think Las Vegas is a natural destination."
Goode said he was not swayed by the conventional wisdom that the Strip had been overbuilt. Gambling revenue in Nevada has not yet exceeded the high it reached in 2007, but the state is attracting more visitors than ever, with the number of tourists scraping 40 million a year.
"Analysts, they have their one opinion and we have another," he said.
The Echelon was intended to be a mixed-use development complete with 5,000 rooms in six hotels, lush landscaping and luxury amenities. The 48-year-old Stardust resort was demolished in 2007 to make way for the $4.8 billion project that had been slated to open by 2010 next to Circus Circus.
Construction workers toiled for a year and built 12 stories on the corner of Las Vegas Boulevard and Desert Inn Road before the credit markets choked.
Reid called the abandoned property "really ugly," and said the Resorts World project would be a tremendous, "stupendous," boon for the region.
"International tourists, they spend more, they stay longer in our state," he said.
Genting opened its first casino in 1971 in Malaysia and now operates sites in the Philippines, United Kingdom, Singapore and the Bahamas.
It has also been expanding into the United States. The conglomerate opened a New York casino in 2011 and is pursuing a project in Miami. CEO KT Lim said the Las Vegas project would establish the company as a bicoastal player in the U.S. gambling industry.
Hannah Dreier can be reached at http://twitter.com/hannahdreier