Tourism officials gathered on Long Beach Island Wednesday to re-enforce the message that shore towns — bruised by Sandy, but battered by perception that the storm destroyed many Jersey Shore destinations — are open for business.

Despite the widespread, heartbreaking images of neighborhoods thrashed by waves, businesses, for the most part, either are open or will be ready for the summer season, said Grace Hanlon, executive director of the New Jersey Division of Travel & Tourism.

“The best way you can help the recovery is by coming to the Jersey Shore and spending money,” Hanlon said during the news conference. “Many businesses are open. I think you will be pleasantly surprised when you call ahead.”

The press conference was part of an effort by state tourism officials to draw visitors back along the Jersey Shore, not just for the summer. Hanlon and others noted that events are happening now. Many seasonal businesses are closed for the winter, but many of those that stay open during the winter are ready for visitors now, the tourism officials said.

Communities south of where the storm made landfall in Brigantine, for the most part, had some flood damage, but businesses that cater to tourists are already up and running, said Diane Wieland, director of the Cape May County Department of Tourism. Those communities, however, are contending with the perception created by images of the destruction in northern Ocean and Monmouth counties, she said.

“Yes they are the images of the Jersey Shore, but they are not of the New Jersey Shore today,” she said. “We want people to know you will still get that same great Jersey Shore vacation.”

And for those vacationers that typically visit areas that did suffer major damage, Cape May County’s beaches have room, but bookings are coming fast. Already Wildwood hotels report bookings are up 30 percent over this time last year and real estate rentals have reported meeting January goals in December, Wieland said.

Numerous events already are on schedule in Long Beach Island and 90 percent of rental units on the island that were available last summer will be available this summer, said Lori Pepenella, destination marketing director for the Southern Ocean County Chamber of Commerce. “In the spring, everything that was planning to open will be open.”

The signs of ongoing recovery still are visible when driving south on Long Beach Boulevard, however many businesses that seemed under construction had signs in their windows stating they would be open this summer. Other businesses, including motels and restaurants, noted they were open.

Perception and reality also are a major issue for those areas hardest hit by the storm in northern Ocean County and Monmouth County, which saw the worst of the damage in the state, said Robert Hilton, executive director of the Jersey Shore Convention and Visitor’s Bureau.

Lingering images of a roller coaster in the ocean in Seaside Heights, toppled houses in Ortley Beach, washed away beach clubs in Sea Bright are not necessarily jiving with the reality that some restaurants, shops and other attractions off the immediate Boardwalk area either are already open or will be open, Hilton said.

Boardwalks in Asbury Park and Long Branch are being improved and will be open for business by spring, Hilton said. Sandy Hook, barring additional damage from storms this winter, should be open by Memorial Day, Hilton said. “The areas that are not open are more residential.”

Atlantic City Convention and Visitors Authority marketing head Larry Sieg said that despite a constant effort to correct the image that Atlantic City’s Boardwalk suffered damage in the storm, the misperception not only persists, but has spread around the country. ACCVA’s tourism department has received numerous calls from across the country asking when the Boardwalk will be fixed.

“Their reaction is usually ‘You’re kidding! The news makes it look like it’s going to take years for Atlantic City to rebuild the Boardwalk,’” Sieg said of the reaction those callers have when told the city’s tourism district suffered no damage during the storm. “The media perceptions out there have been just devastating to us.”

Wieland said her department is trying to spread the word that the Jersey Cape region is open for business and that hotel rooms and rental units are available by going to trade shows and using marketing campaigns.

“Our message is bruised, but not battered. We’re definitely ready for the summer season,” she said.

Contact Sarah Watson:

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