NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York City has issued an open challenge to Las Vegas, seeking to become a premier destination for people to get married in what officials hope will boost tourism during uncertain economic times.
The new Manhattan Marriage Bureau opened to the public this week following a $12.3 million renovation, and the 24,000-square-foot (2,230-square meter) space has won enthusiastic reviews from newlyweds.
"We're taking Las Vegas on," said First Deputy City Clerk Michael McSweeney. "The city hopes to advance New York not just as a tourist destination, but as a marriage destination."
But will it be enough to unseat Las Vegas -- known for quick weddings presided over by Elvis impersonators -- as the U.S. wedding destination capital?
In 2007, New York City issued about 66,000 marriage licenses, including more than 21,000 licenses in the borough of Manhattan, city records show. Clark County, Nevada, which includes Las Vegas, issued 108,963 licenses in 2007, a spokeswoman at the city's tourism office said.
Applying for a marriage license in Las Vegas, where there is no required waiting period, is still less cumbersome than in New York, where couples must wait 24 hours after filing a marriage application before holding their wedding ceremony.
NYC & Company, the city's tourism agency, said the Ritz-Carlton Battery Park hotel has already created a wedding reception package tied to the new location, and the agency said it plans to market New York as a wedding destination abroad.
It has been something of a pet project for New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a mayoral spokesman said. Jamie Drake, who decorated the mayor's Upper East Side townhouse, was hired to oversee the design.
The former location, where couples have obtained marriage licenses and held civil ceremonies for almost a century, was long derided as cramped and unromantic.
Women, some dressed in elaborate bridal gowns, were obliged to pass through metal detectors and freshen up in an ordinary public restroom. There was no place to buy flowers.
Still, thousands of New Yorkers were married there over the years, including famous couples like Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft in 1964 and, in 2005, the actor Matt Damon and Luciana Bozan.
The new space, which is the length of a city block, features the building's original marble with brightly colored furniture and ornate chandeliers.
"We thought it would be like an office. But we came and it's actually really nice," said Michelle Tablada, 35, who works in the medical field. "We had perfect timing."
Unlike the previous location, where couples waited in multiple lines, couples now fill out forms at computer terminals and proceed to a clerk, where a system offers help in 170 languages. They wait on plush green sofas.
Couples are invited to bring music on iPods or CDs to personalize the ceremony.
A gift shop sells flower arrangements, costume weddings bands for $9 and New York City memorabilia, like Empire State Building salt and pepper shakers.
The metal detectors are gone and the women's restroom is outfitted with full-length mirrors and a vanity table.
"It's more classy, more elegant," said Kim Ashley, who waited with her girlfriend, Bessie Haile, to get a domestic partnership certificate, though they are barred from a ceremony as a same-sex couple. "It's better for the occasion."
Editing by Daniel Trotta and David Wiessler