Vacationers entering the Catskill Mountain resort region via New York State Highway 17 are seeing something new on the billboards beckoning them to the resort hotels of this highly concentrated, nationally famous and internationally renowned holiday country. Small signs tacked onto the billboards proclaim "Casinos Mean Jobs," the theme of the current statewide campaign for a state constitutional amendment to legalize casino gambling in select resort centers.

The campaign is reaching a crescendo as the state legislature, now in session in Albany, works its way toward a vote, possibly in April, on this question. The outcome of this highly controversial bill will directly affect the pleasure traveler and the conventioneer on two levels: interstate, as New York fights New Jersey for the millions of dollars and thousands of tourists Jersey's Atlantic City legal gambling casinos are siphoning out of New York state; and intrastate, where several forces are lined up against legalizing casinos -- the resorts and communities with New York state parimutuel betting race tracks, state and county legal off-track betting parlors, church-sponsored bingo game operators and the afluent underworld gambling characters now operating their own illegal gambling spreads.

The outcome will help determine the holiday destinations of many residents of the eastern half of the United States and the flow of tourist traffic is the explanation for the rise and fall in popularity of resort centers. Just as Atlantic City has diverted a number of tourists from Las Vegas and from the casinos of some Caribbean islands, so legal New York casinos can be expected to attract more vacationers and conventioneers.

The flow of tourist traffic away from New York to Atlantic City is only now becoming evident, because conventions -- especially the larger, business gatherings -- pick their sites three to five years in advance. Atlantic City's first casino was opened on Mary 26, 1978, and now six are in full operation with five others still in the planning stages (two of these are awaiting a better mortgage market and improvement in the economy).

A quick look at the gross take of New Jersey's six casinos and the state's share of these profits explains why state and local government officials are so eager to woo the gambling tourist's patronage. From May 1978 through December 1980, the total gross income from New Jersey's legal casino betting was $1,081,900,000, out of which $113,400,000 went straight into the coffers of the state of New Jersey.

New York argues (with some justification and parochialism) that most of the tourist trade now fattening up in Atlantic City consists of New York residents, that New York resorts are losing guests because of Jersey gambling, that many hotels are already suffering loss of trade, and that in another couple of years the flow of convention crowds from New York to New Jersey may even bankrupt some large resorts.

The Catskill Mountain resort hotels illustrate this point. During the autumn foliage season and again in the spring, the Catskill hotels used to do a big weekday business with busloads of senior citizens coming up from the New York City area and from elsewhere in the state to spend two or three days on package tours. These guests filled the rooms during the midweek lull. But when tour operators began offering one-day bus trips from Manhattan for $12.50, the senior citizens turned their buses around and rode south to the Jersey shore. Especially when Atlantic City casino operators started giving these bus riders $10 in coins which they could choose to put in gambling machines or into their pockets, making the day's excursion cost only $2.50 plus meals.

The 11 major hotels in Sullivan and Ulster Counties have more than 5,000 guest rooms to fill, and in smaller hotels and in bungalow colonies, farm houses and small vacation units there are almost as many again. There are enough rooms so that during the summer peak holiday season the entire Catskill Mountain resorts region entertains about a quarter of a million guests. And now the hoteliers, big and little, fear that in a few years New Jersey's casino competition might wipe out the Catskill Region's major industry, one that has growing for about 75 years from its origin in small farm boarding houses for workers in New York City's garment industry to deluxe hotels with anywhere from a couple of hundred to as many as 1,200 rooms.

In self-defense, the Catskill hotels and resorts have affiliated with The Coalition for Casino Gaming, Inc., an umbrella organization whose members represent the Catskill Resort Association, the Committee for Casino Gaming of New York City, the Niagara Falls Casino Gaming Committee, the Rockaway Chamber of Commerce, the Long Beach Chamber of Commerce, the New York Hotel-Motel Trades Council (AFL-CIO) and the New York State Hotel and Motel Association. James L. Parker, vice president of the Concord Hotel, Kiamesha Lake in Sullivan County, is president of the Coalition, which claims legalized casinos will create 100,000 new jobs throughout the state, perhaps 20,000 in the Catskills region, just about doubling the number of people presently employed in its entire resort industry.

The major opposition comes from the New York State Catholic Conference of Bishops, representing the archdiocese of New York and the seven dioceses in the state. The Conference wrote to all the state legislators on Feb. 2, urging them to vote against the referendum on casino gambling. The bishops said they were opposed for "social and moral reasons."

The Catholic Church has no objection to "recreational gambling," defined by Father Damien Pickel, administrative assistant for the archdiocese, as being a friendly Saturday night poker game and church bingo sessions. However, the bishops argued that casino gaming tends to take from the poor a larger proportion of their income that it does from the rich and to injure community life by causing problems for compulsive gamblers and by indirectly increasing crime, prostitution, etc.

The statement concluded: "We do not embrace as a long-range fiscal solution a so-called 'industry' which produces no new goods or services and which, instead, results only in the transfer of money from the pockets of some into the pockets of others who generally have more to start with."

New York City officials hope for two or three casinos attached to midtown hotels, plus at least one in the Rockaways in Queens. Long Beach is a small town on the Atlantic seashore just east of New York City and across the inlet from Jones Beach, whose economic future appears to many to be very bleak without the boost of a new hotel and casino.

Niagara Falls, no longer the honeymoon capital of America, has declined as a tourist haven because most of the new hotel and resort building in recent years has taken place on the Canadian side of the Falls. With a brand new $600,000,000 convention center, Niagara Falls, N. Y., can use the extra added attraction of a casino.

Those familiar with the history of both legal and illegal gaming in New York state may at first be puzzled that Saratoga Springs, home of one of the country's most famous flat horse tracks and one of the state's oldest and most viable resorts, is not seeking a legal casino. Saratoga enjoyed an intimate relationahip with semi-legal and illegal casino gambling a century ago during the days of Canfield's Casino and Diamond Jim Brady and his pals. Before World War II, at least a half-dozen luxurious casinos flourished illegally behind facades of posh restaurants, livening the Saratoga scene long after the afternoon racing card ended. Some continued after the war until the moral strictures of then governor Thomas E. Dewey's administration and the rise of parimutel legal track betting took hold.

Saratoga Springs reportedly opposes legalizing casino gambling for reasons that range from moral outrage by some citizens to the desire of the New York State Racing Association, which runs the flat tracks at Saratoga and downstate at Belmont and Adqueduct, to avoid competition from legalized casinos. It is not likely that proprietors of the ballet season at Saratoga in July and of the evening symphony concert programs there in August would oppose casinos, because they would attract more vacationers to the town. There is plenty of time before and after the evening programs for the gaming set to get down its bets.

The state legislature last year passed eight different bills to authorize casino gaming, and under the constitution the current legislature must approve one of the eight so it can be put to a statewide vote in the November election. This is the major point of the coalition's campaign -- that the legislature has a duty to put the question on the November ballot so that the people of New York will have the opportunity to decide the issue.

Observers of the campaign in Albany and the subsequent statewide election campaign suspect the key to both votes lies with Mayor Edward Kock and the many state legislators whose constituencies are within the bounds of New York City. Mayor Kock reportedly favors a limited number of casinos in Manhattan, as well as one in Rockaway. The mayor would insist, however, that they not be at street level but upstairs in hotels well inside the buildings with no direct access from the streets; that they be open only from 6 to 8 p.m. until 12 a.m., and that they enforce strict dress codes. This would mean jackets and neckties for gentlemen punters and, presumably, clothing more sedate than jeans for the women.

All these conditions might create a more genteel and dignified casino atmosphere than that prevailing in Las Vegas and Atlantic City and in some aeas of the Caribbean and South America. They would also make it difficult, if not impossible, for working people to double-park their cars, taxis and trucks and dash in during daytime working hours to risk a quick dollar. The dress code supposedly would keep anyone who is too near the poverty level to own a jacket and four-in-hand from plunging essential funds -- although anyone could, without bothering to dress up, continue to invest in the New York state weekly lottery at $1 a ticket, or the 50-cent daily state numbers game, or patronize the illegal policy numbers games.

Although the upcoming legislative and statewide constitutional amendment votes are matters strictly for New York residents, the outcome is likely to have important effects upon the holiday and travel patterns of millions of tourists in the eastern quadrant of the United States, and Canada as well. A Niagara Falls casino, for example, would bring Canadian tourists across that open border in numbers, and punters throughout the Midwest who now have to fly to Las Vegas or to Atlantic City, could hop into their cars and in a few hours be playing at Niagara Falls.

Proof of the potential for a hotel-and-tourism boom, should New York legalize casino gaming, can be found also in the interest hotel and financial groups have shown in taking options on upstate resorts. Mark Etess, vice president and general manager of Grossinger's, perhaps the oldest and best known of the large family hotels operating in the Catskills, said a California group of investors holds an option, renewable annually until February 1984, on Grossinger's. He would not disclose the price of the option, but a much smaller hotel in the area reportedly has been optioned to someone else for $250,000.

As a footnote to the debate on legalizing gambling, it must be noted that in the world of legitimate business, options are themselves a kind of legalized gamble.