Memorial Day holiday car traffic coming into Atlantic City increased by 3 percent over a year ago, bucking a trend so far this year of declining Atlantic City Expressway traffic to the resort.

The South Jersey Transportation Authority said Friday that nearly 372,000 vehicles headed into the nation’s second largest gambling resort over the three-day holiday, up from nearly 362,000 last year.

“The weather played a major factor in the success of this past weekend, not only here in Atlantic City, but along the New Jersey coastline,” said Don Marrandino, eastern regional president of Caesars Entertainment, which owns four of Atlantic City’s 11 casinos. “Theaters were packed with concerts and shows such as Chicago, LeOmbre, Let’s Make a Deal, and Snoop Dogg.”

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Area transportation and tourism officials are seeking a silver lining in mixed first-quarter travel statistics that suggest a decline in the number of day-trip tourists coming to Atlantic City but more usage of other transportation modes.

Another bright spot in area economic news: business at the Atlantic City Convention Center and Boardwalk Hall is increasing, convention officials said.

Air passenger numbers at Atlantic City International Airport are up, and more people are taking rail service to Atlantic City, according to the SJTA. But vehicle traffic on the Atlantic City Expressway heading into the resort is down, and fewer visitors are taking casino buses.

“We’re going to need to replace those day trip visitors with folks who stay overnight and stay in the city,” said Brian Tyrrell, associate professor of hospitality and tourism management studies at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.

In the first quarter of 2011, SJTA figures show, toll transactions on the expressway were down 6 percent (or 309,174 fewer transactions) at the Pleasantville Plaza — the closest to Atlantic City — from that period in 2010.

The number of casino bus passengers to Atlantic City was down 7 percent, and casino bus trips were down 5 percent.

Meanwhile, passenger numbers at Atlantic City International Airport continue to rise. Currently, the airport is on pace to surpass its banner year in 2010, which saw 1.4 million passengers.

From January to March, passengers taking rail service rose to 205,027, a nearly 10 percent increase from the first quarter of 2010, according to SJTA statistics.

Although not a complete gauge, the data offers a glimpse of activity on some of the major travel avenues into Atlantic City.

Tyrrell said the numbers could represent a shift from the convenience gamblers who head into Atlantic City for one day into longer-term visitors. Atlantic City International Airport can play an important role in delivering gamblers and conventions to Atlantic City because airline passengers are more likely to stay longer, he said.

Competition from Pennsylvania casinos is drawing those convenience gamblers from Atlantic City.

Adele Klein, owner of Klein Transportation based in Douglassville, Pa., said her company has witnessed a decline in Atlantic City travelers. Klein said much of that has to do with Pennsylvania casinos. The company runs one trip a day to Atlantic City.

Tom Meredith, president of Lancaster, Pa.-based Conestoga Tours, said his company’s Atlantic City casino trips have been holding relatively steady in the past few years although there has been a significant decline over the past decade.

The 20-bus company, which also runs trips to New York City, Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia, runs one trip a week to Atlantic City in the off-season and two per week during the summer.

Meredith said he has not had much success developing bus tours to nearby Pennsylvania casinos.

“In our industry, two hours is the normal travel time to a likely destination,” he said. “When the trip is under two hours, it’s been my observation people tend to drive their automobiles.”

Meanwhile, the first quarter of 2011 has been good for attendance at Boardwalk Hall and conventions, said Jeffrey Vasser, executive director of the Atlantic City Convention & Visitors Authority.

Attendance at events at Boardwalk Hall — from boxing matches to a Lady Gaga concert — was up 55 percent from the first quarter of 2011. Boardwalk Hall hosted 13 events in the first quarter, compared to eight in the first quarter of 2010, Vasser said.

“We had something in Boardwalk Hall every weekend in the first quarter. We don’t remember when we had something every weekend in the hall,” he said.

And estimated attendance from bookings at the Atlantic City Convention Center was up 55 percent, to a total of about 168,000 in the first quarter, he said.

“A lot of our sales efforts are starting to pay dividends. And of course the economy’s turned around,” he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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