South Jersey tourism advocates are lobbying the state to spend an extra $20 million on travel and tourism marketing and advertising to combat misconceptions about the extent of Hurricane Sandy damage.

“If we don’t save our 2013 tourism season, we are going to lose much more than what we have already lost,” Cape May County Chamber of Commerce President Vicki Clark told members of the Assembly Tourism and the Arts Committee in Trenton Monday.

Tourism officials from across the state told the committee New Jersey may lose billions of dollars if it does not launch a marketing and advertising campaign letting tourists know many of the state’s vacation destinations were undamaged by Sandy or have since re-opened for business.

A bill is already under committee review in the Assembly and Senate to supplement the state’s travel and tourism advertising budget for such purposes.

Clark and other tourism boosters said many out-of-state people wrongly believe Sandy flattened the entire shore area when some destinations, such as many in Cape May County, re-opened within a week after the Oct. 29 storm. Tour operators and others still ask about the damage, which the national media perpetuated through images of the destruction in Seaside Heights and other hard-hit areas far from Cape May, Clark said.

“The national media has planted this belief in their mind that it’s all gone,” she said. “We have to be sensitive to the people who have sustained loss but we can’t create a greater loss.”

Officials estimate that shore tourism contributes about half of the $38 billion visitors spend across the state annually. Clark and other tourism advocates said studies show that there is a $36 return on investment on every dollar spent on tourism marketing and advertising.

While Congress is expected to vote Tuesday on a federal bill to provide disaster aid, which may help cover the proposed $20 million in new marketing, New Jersey should commit to the campaign regardless of the outcome of the vote.

“New Jersey may have to do it on its own,” Clark said.

At the same time, many areas of the state were damaged and their recovery is dependent on approval of federal aid.

“The challenge is not to minimize that hit, as we’re after federal dollars, (while) at the same time yell to the world that we are open for business,” said Joe Kelly, president of the Greater Atlantic City Chamber of Commerce. “So it’s a bit of a Catch 22.”

Diane Wieland, director of tourism for Cape May County, said officials in particular are reaching out to Canadian tour operators and visitors. Eleven percent of the county’s visitors come from Canada.

They and others who plan multiple day trips are important to the state, particularly from a tax revenue perspective, she said.

“If we are not generating overnight stays, occupancy taxes are not being collected,” she said.

Committee members and tourism advocates also talked about the possiblity of using Gov. Chris Christie in ads and commercials as a way to leverage his national appeal.

“If a campaign featuring him would go out there, I think we would be all set,” said Lori Pepenella, destination marketing director at the Southern Ocean County Chamber of Commerce.

Other tourism-related bills under consideration by lawmakers is one that would waive tolls on The New Jersey Turnpike, Garden State Parkway and Atlantic City Expressway for buses that provide regular service to Atlantic City casinos at least weekly. The Senate’s Transportation Committee approved the bill Tuesday.

Contact Hoa Nguyen:

609-272-7203