CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE — Cape May County tourism grew by more than 2 percent last year, which officials see as a hopeful sign for a South Jersey economy that is still recovering from the recession.

The county’s top industry outpaced state tourism, which grew at just 1 percent to $38 billion in direct revenue, according to numbers released Wednesday at the Cape May County Tourism Conference.

A record 87 million visitors came to New Jersey last year or 6 percent more than in 2012.

The state added tourism jobs in 17 of the 21 counties, including Cape May, which saw modest sector job growth of 1 percent to 25,479 workers.

Atlantic, Cumberland and Ocean counties had fewer tourism jobs last year.

The four beach counties generated more than half of New Jersey’s total tourism revenue. Cape May County generated $5.5 billion last year.

“We foresee a stronger 2014,” said Christopher Pike, of Tourism Economics, of Wayne, Pa., the company that analyzed the industry for New Jersey’s Division of Travel and Tourism.

“If New Jersey tourism were a company, it would be ranked 70th (on the Fortune 500),” he said. That’s bigger than DuPont ($39 billion); Halliburton ($28 billion); and McDonald’s ($27 billion).

Cape May County ramped up its efforts to attract Canadians this year with a tourism push in Quebec, which has long associations with southern New Jersey. Freeholder Director Gerald Thornton said the county might expand this effort soon to include Ontario as well.

Overnight visitors are responsible for 91 percent of all tourism spending.

“Tourism is the lifeblood of Cape May County,” Thornton said. “If we can get those overnight stays, that’s where people will spend their money. That’s why we have to reach out to those markets.”

Agricultural tourism, which includes visits to wineries and restaurants that serve locally grown food, is expected to expand in popularity in years to come, county Tourism Director Diane Wieland said.

“Farm-to-table is huge,” she said. “People are more interested in how their food is grown and prepared.”

Tourists look for locally grown crops and seafood at farmer’s markets, in local restaurants and at wineries and distilleries. This includes beach plums, locally harvested honey, Cape May salt oysters and wines from the Outer Coastal Plain.

“It’s a big way to expand the season in the spring and fall because we can find fresh produce about nine months of the year here,” she said.

The county got off to a slow, scary start for businesses last year with a cool, wet June, Wieland said. But numbers for July and August were good and the fall numbers made up the difference.

The county launched a “boomerang” campaign last summer encouraging visitors to return for a second visit in the fall. Stronger fall numbers for occupancy taxes and toll receipts on the Garden State Parkway suggest that program was successful, Wieland said.

Meanwhile, Assemblyman Samuel Fiocchi, R-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, said he is working on two tourism-related bills. One would give tax credits to seasonal employers, some of whom were affected when New Jersey this year raised the state minimum wage.

The other bill would return more room occupancy tax revenue to the counties such as Atlantic and Cape May that generate it.

“The return on that income has been inequitable,” Fiocchi said. “Cape May County gets 10 percent (of what it raises). Essex County gets 143 percent.”

Contact Michael Miller:

609-272-7217