A Christmas travel season that tourism experts said could be the nation’s best in six years will not take place in South Jersey.
Officials in resort destinations such as Atlantic City and Cape May said expected visitors are not coming, kept away in part by a misguided belief that Hurricane Sandy leveled all of the state’s beachfront communities.
In Atlantic City, pre-hurricane indicators such as parking tallies, luxury-tax revenue and hotel occupancy rates left many resort merchants preparing for what they thought would be solid holiday business, said Atlantic City Alliance President Liza Cartmell.
“The storm is really going to disrupt that,” Cartmell said, adding that merchants who run everything from casinos to restaurants will now be grateful for whoever shows up during the holidays.
Meanwhile, travel agents in South Jersey said the Christmas-New Year’s holiday business that is crucial to their yearly financial success is flat. Many potential travelers are still worried about the economy, while others are spending their money on repairs to properties and homes damaged by Sandy, they said.
Lynne Avery, a travel consultant at Preferred Travel in Northfield, said the company’s holiday business looked to be down from last year until it was salvaged by last-minute bookings by two groups of people.
One group involved South Jersey residents whose homes were damaged by the hurricane and who booked vacations to escape their plight for a short while, Avery said. The other group involved area residents who booked vacations to Mexico to attend celebrations linked to the purported Dec. 21 end-of-the-world Mayan calendar scare, she said.
Officials with the state Division of Tourism and Travel were unavailable to comment about the state of the Christmas holiday travel season. The state has a $38 billion tourism industry.
Nationally, AAA is predicting that 93.3 million Americans will travel during the Christmas season. That figure represents a 1.6 percent increase from last year. The estimate is also about 400,000 people shy of the record set in 2006.
More cars will crowd the highways than ever before, largely because travelers are having a difficult time finding affordable air fares, according to AAA. The group reports that a record 84.4 million people will drive at least 50 miles between Dec. 22 and Jan. 1. That represents more than 90 percent of holiday travelers, it said.
Officials with the South Jersey Transportation Authority, which operates the Atlantic City Expressway, said that last year, about 1.4 million vehicles traveled the road from Dec. 23 through Jan. 2.
“We hope that as many vehicles or more travel the (expressway) this year, although … it is weather-dependent,” SJTA spokesman Kevin Rehmann said.
AAA also reports that motorists nationally will pay close to the average of $3.23 per gallon for gas that they paid on Christmas Day 2011. That price is 50 cents per gallon less than what they paid in September, the organization said.
Current AAA statistics show per-gallon gas price averages in South Jersey to be $3.21 in Vineland, $3.33 in Cape May Court House and $3.36 in Mays Landing.
Cartmell said media reports after Sandy have many people believing that Atlantic City was damaged to the same extent as seashore communities farther up the New Jersey coast.
The alliance is running television commercials that show the city and its attractions are open for business, she said. She said it is too early to determine the success of those commercials.
The Christmas season in Cape May usually attracts visitors looking for a Victorian holiday experience.
Susan Krysiak, spokeswoman for the city’s Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts & Humanities, said the number of people who attend the organization’s annual candlelight house tours are a “pretty good barometer” of the resort’s overall holiday business. Participation in those tours is down about 10 percent, she said.
Like Atlantic City, Cape May merchants and officials are trying to overcome media reports about damage to the New Jersey shore, she said.
“We’ve been trying to get the word out,” Krysiak said. “Cape May is such a beautiful place to be at Christmastime.”
Nina Figarole, who has owned Magic Carpet Travel in Vineland since 1982, said Christmas travelers are facing pricey airline and hotel holiday surcharges.
She said her holiday business is about the same as last year’s, supported by travelers whose only time off from work occurs around Christmas. Those customers are willing to pay those surcharges to be with family and friends, she said.
Those travelers will also have to pay more for hotel rooms and car rentals, AAA said. AAA three-diamond lodgings are estimated to cost about $129 a night, an increase of $3 from 2011. AAA two-diamond properties are up $3 a night to $95.
Daily car rental rates for the holiday season will average $56, compared to $40 last year.
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