SEA ISLE CITY — Cape May County’s elected leaders and tourism officials repeated their message Monday morning that their 16 communities have recovered from Hurricane Sandy and ready to welcome visitors.

“We are ready not only for the 2013 summer, but we are ready to go right now,” said Sea Isle Mayor and Freeholder Len Desiderio.

More than 20 officials attended the latest of several news conferences held following the historic storm to make people aware that the southern part of the shore was not damaged nearly as much as the state’s northern coast, a misconception they said is common.

“Tourism is a perception-driven industry,” said Diane Wieland, tourism director for the county.

Wieland said the defining image of the storm’s effect on the state is the picture of the roller coaster in Seaside Heights that toppled into the ocean and remains there today. Repeatedly seeing that has convinced out-of-towners that the rest of the state is similarly in shambles.

She also said that there is already marketing competition from Southern states, such as Virginia and North Carolina, that reinforce the view that coastal communities in New Jersey will be closed to tourists this year.

At the same time, local officials want to be a “catcher’s mitt” for people who normally vacationed in Monmouth and Ocean counties but may be searching somewhere else this year. Wieland said those people may look farther south for a summer retreat, and leaders should want to keep tourism dollars in the state.

To emphasize that their communities are hoping for visitors starting as soon as possible, local officials highlighted their events scheduled long before summer returns.

Cape May Mayor Ed Mahaney said the city’s new Convention Hall will be offering roller skating this upcoming weekend. Desiderio said his city expects 40,000 people in town for its Polar Bear Plunge on Feb. 16. Stone Harbor Mayor Suzanne Walters said her borough is having its own polar plunge March 9 called the “Stone Harbor Shiver.”

Lower Township Deputy Mayor Norris Clark also joked that he checked with the shorebirds and horseshoe crabs and said they would be returning this year for eco-tourists to enjoy. Upper Township Councilman Ed Barr said his community has scenic rivers, campgrounds and beaches in Strathmere to enjoy.

“The beaches are still there,” Barr said. “I was there yesterday.”

Cape May County Freeholder Director Gerald Thornton said these reminders are vital to sustain the county’s $5.1 billion tourism industry that attracts more than 800,000 people on peak weekends.

While pointing out differences between the southern shore and the northern coast, Thornton was also careful to give his condolences to those still recovering.

“Our hearts go out — and I mean this genuinely — to the those northern counties that have experienced so much damage,” he said.

Monday’s news conference was the second since Sandy to be held in Sea Isle’s makeshift city hall that was formerly the community’s elementary school. The city government has been situated there since the storm flooded the city’s public safety and municipal hall buildings.

The first news conference was to express opposition to a proposed bill that would ban beach tags for communities using federal funds for beach replenishment.

During that event, officials stressed the importance of maintaining clean and safe beaches and needing beach tag revenue to do that. On Monday, they again focused on the importance of getting people to support both the local and statewide economy.

“It’s important to the entire state, but nowhere is it as important as in Cape May County,” said Vicki Clark, president of the Cape May County Chamber of Commerce.

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