Tourism officials say they're confident visitors have heard the message that the South Jersey shore is open for business.
Whether shore towns will continue to see tourists on the beach at the same rates as in years past remains to be seen. Deterrents including cool temperatures, cloudy days and damp weather have plagued the shore since Memorial Day weekend, the unofficial start of the season.
South of Long Beach Island, most shore towns didn't see nearly the widespread level of devastation experienced by the rest of the state as a result of Hurricane Sandy. Tourism officials from Atlantic City to Cape May have been pushing the message that the favorite New Jersey vacation destinations of years past are back to normal, with more aggressive advertising and packed event calendars.
Yet the bad luck has continued as this June was the wettest on record in at least one Atlantic City location, likely keeping many tourists from rediscovering the South Jersey shore. Beach-tag sales in towns from Long Beach Island to Cape May are down from where they were at the start of June last year, with many seeing as much as a 10 percent drop.
Meanwhile, all modes of traffic into Atlantic City - already down in the first four months of the year - continued to fall in May. Traffic through the Pleasantville toll plaza on the Atlantic City Expressway was down 4 percent over last May. Scheduled passengers through Atlantic City International Airport were down 18 percent from last May, casino bus passengers were down 21 percent and Atlantic City rail passengers were down 7 percent.
Kevin Rehmann, a spokesman for the South Jersey Transportation Authority, which operates the expressway, said traffic has been down since Hurricane Sandy, but poor weather always affects travel as well. There's often no way to make a definitive determination about what is causing the drop.
"People know we're open. There's no doubt about that. Between the massive advertising campaign, the public relations efforts, the press coverage, it's absolutely out there," said Jeff Guaracino, a spokesman for the Atlantic City Alliance, which markets the resort. "There are always some things you can't control, like weather, but we just have to keep doing the best we can with what we've got."
For the alliance, that's meant a continuous push of summer events, from the World Championship of Sand Sculpting, which drew an estimated 100,000 people, to powerboat racing and a ramped-up fireworks display. Today's Fourth of July fireworks display in Atlantic City will be one of the most elaborate ever seen in the resort, with fireworks coming from four locations throughout the city in a choreographed show set to music on WAYV-FM 95.1.
Officials have pointed to events such as the Atlantic City Airshow, saying the more events that take place earlier in the season, the better chance there is to capture a crowd for the remainder of the summer.
"The economics for different businesses are going to be different. We made the show early this year because it was good for the community," Greater Atlantic City Chamber President Joe Kelly said. "From a reputation standpoint, it's important that we continue to do special events that drive home the message. We were lucky enough to have great weather and a successful run for the show."
Israel Posner, executive director of the Lloyd D. Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality and Tourism, said it was encouraging to see an increase in traffic over a typical Wednesday on the day of the airshow. That proves the show was able to attract more people to the resort earlier in the season, and increases the chances that people will pass on word that the shore is doing well.
"The reality is that we were dealt a bad hand. It's an unfortunate situation," Posner said. "To me, the key is bringing the attention and the excitement early and having the best possible chance to recapture the crowds."
Brian Conley, owner of the White House Sub Shop on Arctic Avenue in Atlantic City, said a number of people who came in for a meal immediately after Sandy asked questions about whether Atlantic City had returned to normal. For months, the city fought rumors that the Boardwalk was destroyed after national news reports mistakenly said the walkway had washed away in the storm. In reality, the section that was lost was in the city's South Inlet neighborhood and had been crumbling for years.
"Some folks come down and still ask, but we don't run into quite as many," Conley said. "The more people who come down here, the more word will get around. Hopefully, come July and August, it will just be a bad memory."
Guaracino said more work remains to be done, but national media attention, such as the kind seen when Atlantic City was highlighted on a recent episode of "The Bachelorette," will go a long way to helping perceptions.
"People were really commenting that Atlantic City looked beautiful. It really showed off the island from the marina to the bay, and on the show they had to travel in a helicopter to the areas north where Sandy really had done damage," Guaracino said. "My point is, there's a whole heck of a lot that's going on here, and that's bringing momentum. That's what we need."
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