State Sen. Jim Whelan speaks Wednesday at the New Jersey Travel Industry Association's annual meeting Wednesday during a discussion on what tourism stakeholders believe to be the crucial issues affecting the industry at Trump Marina Casino in Atlantic City. Edward Lea

New Jersey’s travel promotions beckon visitors to come to a state with “great destinations in any direction.” But advocates for the state’s multibillion-dollar tourism industry worry the ads will get lost without the money behind the message.

“We want to be able to fund the spring campaigns to let (the tourists) know we’re here and we want their business,” said Joseph Simonetta, executive director of the New Jersey Travel Industry Association.

The group held its annual meeting Wednesday during the first day of the 2010 Governor’s Conference on Tourism, which is co-hosted by the state Division of Travel & Tourism. The event at the Trump Marina Hotel Casino in Atlantic City continues today with guest speaker Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno but apparently not Gov. Chris Christie.

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An association alert late Wednesday said Guadagno will attend the annual Governor’s Luncheon, but made no mention of the governor.

Attendees are anticipating what the state’s leaders will say when it comes to promoting and marketing tourism in New Jersey. So far, a state budget deficit has squelched government spending.  

Simonetta said the state has $2 million left in tourism funding for the current fiscal year, but it remains untouched after Christie ordered a spending freeze earlier this year. He said the association is trying to get the state to free up the money.

As for next fiscal year, he said, tourism is expected to be funded at a minimum $9 million, which comes from a 5 percent hotel-occupancy tax. If state officials fail to fund tourism and the arts by the minimal level, a “poison pill” provision will kick in forbidding the state to collect any money from the room tax.

Without sufficient funding to promote and market tourism, there will be a “domino effect,” Simonetta said: The tourists won’t come to events, they won’t spend money at the local restaurants, they won’t snatch up rooms at the hotels and the state won’t collect those taxes.

The state Travel Industry Association estimates that $2.4 billion in state tax revenue was generated by the travel and tourism industry in 2008.

The state also collects a tax on real estate sales to fund beach replenishment — another issue vital to tourism for coastal communities.

Without a thriving beach, tourists will opt to go elsewhere, said Rick Reynolds, director of the Southern Ocean County Chamber of Commerce.

State Sen. Jim Whelan, who spoke during the association’s meeting Wednesday, was unable to promise financial support.

“I wish I could tell you I’m here from the state and we have lots of money to give you,” said Whelan, D-Atlantic. “But the reality is you know the reality.”

Whelan emphasized the need for Atlantic City in particular to offer a new product in order to compete with the growing gaming markets of Pennsylvania and Delaware. He suggested smaller events, such as the outdoor summer concerts hosted by Jimmy Buffet, as well as the opening of Revel Entertainment Group’s $2.6 billion casino as ways to keep tourists coming back.

He added that the premiere this fall of the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire” about the Prohibition era in Atlantic City will give the resort a much-needed “shot in the arm.” The city, he added, needs to capitalize on any available buzz.

“We have to embrace who we are,” Whelan said.

Funding freezes by the state will be especially difficult on seaside municipalities that rely on tourism and also serve as Urban Enterprise Zones, said Tom Gilmour, director of commerce for Asbury Park. The UEZs are state-designated areas that provide sales and tax benefits meant to draw business. Those areas include Asbury Park and Long Branch in Monmouth County and the Wildwoods, which are a joint zone in Cape May County.

The governor has proposed halting further UEZ activity in the coming fiscal year.

“For a city like Asbury Park, without the UEZ funding, nothing would be happening in the city,” Gilmour said. “The city does not have the funds to do business attractions and support the different entertainment venues there.”

Gilmour estimates about $4 million goes toward promoting all of the UEZ’s tourism needs.

“The UEZ funds are frozen and this is the time of year when we need to do our promotions,” he added.

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