CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE - Tourism officials are marketing Cape May County to visitors in North Jersey, New York and Canada this year to capture visitors who are looking for alternatives after Hurricane Sandy.
At the county's annual tourism conference, ex-perts predicted Cape May could see an influx in first-time visitors who normally would spend their vacations on beaches in Monmouth or Ocean counties.
Parts of New Jersey, particularly from Long Beach Island north, still are recovering from the Oct. 29 hurricane. But Cape May and Atlantic counties were largely spared and acted quickly to repair what damage was done.
"Are they chasing the ambulance? You might get some of that," said Richard Perniciaro, director of Atlantic Cape Community College's Center for Regional and Business Research.
Paradoxically, the county's $5.2 billion tourism industry could be at risk from the tough-to-shake misperception that it, too, was devastated by the storm.
A survey in March found nearly half of respondents, or 45 percent, said they were concerned about damage to the county from the hurricane. One in three respondents said media coverage of the storm made them think Cape May County had sustained severe damage.
Perniciaro jokingly called this the "Shoobie Gullibility Index." But those unfounded fears have real consequences.
About 11 percent of respondents said they would consider taking their vacations outside New Jersey because of the concern over lingering storm damage. And that would be disastrous for the county's businesses.
Tourism officials are mo-ving quickly to dispel these fears. New Jersey is launching a $25 million campaign to promote its tourism, particularly among South Jersey's core markets of Philadelphia and New York, said Grace Hanlon, executive director of New Jersey's Division of Travel & Tourism.
"Good luck this summer. I'm pulling for you," she told a group of 100 county officials and business leaders at the conference.
Cape May County and its municipal tourism offices are pitching the same message this year.
Sea Isle City diverted tourism money it intended to spend in Maryland and Virginia to erect a billboard in January at the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel, where 6 million motorists per month see its summer catchphrase: "We're ready."
Likewise, county tour-ism ads for its beach towns will be spreading the word they are open.
Cape May County Freeholder and Sea Isle City Mayor Leonard Desiderio said the campaign seems to be working. Police have seen more New York license plates, presumably as these visitors drive around Sea Isle looking for summer rentals. And real-estate agencies are getting more calls from North Jersey area codes.
"We want people to vacation in New Jersey. We want to be that catcher's mitt," he said.
Early signs suggest a good summer. Sea Isle City's annual Polar Bear Plunge attracted a record 50,000 people in February. And Perniciaro said low gas prices and an improving national economy are harbingers of tourism success for 2013.
The county also is reaching out to an increasingly lucrative market: Canada, which sends 430,500 visitors to New Jersey each year. And 70 percent of these Canadian visitors came to Cape May County in 2011.
A favorable exchange rate and Cape May County's French-friendly business climate have encouraged strong visitor loyalty among the Quebecois. Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno recently took a trip there to promote tourism.
Canadian overnight visits to New Jersey increased 18 percent in a single year between 2010 and 2011. In-state spending by Canadians jumped nearly 28 percent in 2011 to $169 million.
"What other group has increased by this number?" Cape May County Tourism Director Diane Wieland asked. "The Canadian market is the group we need to attract."
Contact Michael Miller:
Cape May County tourism numbers
• Tourism Revenue: $5.2 billion (up 3.6 percent)
• State Tourism Revenue: $37.7 billion (up 2.6 percent)
• Saw 12.4 million visitors
• Employed 24,463 workers (2.6 percent increase).
• Indirectly employed 33,509 workers (1.6 percent increase).
• Contributed $9.4 million in state occupancy taxes (8.9 percent increase)
Source: Cape May County Department of Tourism