Canadian tourism is surging in southern New Jersey, driven by a weak American dollar and local marketing efforts that seem to be paying dividends.
Requests from Canadian tour operators for Atlantic City vacation literature are up 20 percent this year from last year. Bulk requests are up 30 percent from 2012, said Elaine Zamansky, spokeswoman for the Atlantic City Convention & Visitors Authority.
A majority of requests are from the Quebecois, for whom New Jersey has long had a summer appeal.
“Canadians are becoming a stronger market for Atlantic City,” Zamansky said. “I think Hurricane Sandy raised public awareness about New Jersey among Canadians.”
More than 430,000 Canadians visited Cape May County in 2011, an 18 percent increase from the previous year. Their spending was even higher — an estimated $168 million, or 28 percent, more than 2010. And numbers for 2012 and 2013, not yet released, are expected to be even better, said Diane Wieland, director of the Cape May County Department of Tourism.
While this represents a fraction of the more than 12 million visitors to Cape May and Cumberland counties, it is an important demographic, Wieland said.
“This year is expected to be a record-breaking one for Canadian tourism,” she said. “Overnight stays are up. We’re a great destination for them because it’s only a seven-hour drive. They’re not coming for a day trip. The farther they drive, the longer they stay.”
The duty-free spending limit by Canadian customs increased from $50 to $200 per person, which means vacationers can bring back more household goods that are taxed at cheaper American rates.
This Canadian interest is spilling over into Atlantic County, where the tourism industry is doing more to reach out to these drive-in visitors, said Jeff Guaracino, spokesman for the Atlantic City Alliance.
“The Atlantic City Convention & Visitor’s Authority does some work with the hotel market — bus groups from Canada,” he said. “It’s too early to tell if casino properties are seeing any increase in Canadian visitors.”
The Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts & Humanities last year began offering French-speaking trolley tours of Cape May and guided walks through the historic 1879 Emlen Physick estate.
“Last year we had thought this would be a good offering to Canadian tourists,” said MAC spokeswoman Susan Krysiak, of Middle Township. “Even if many French Canadians speak English, too, it’s a nice way to let them know they’re welcome and we’re glad they’re here.”
In November, the nonprofit group plans to attend the Ontario Motor Coach Association convention in Toronto, said Susan Gibson, of Lower Township, MAC’s director of group sales.
“I’m so excited because I want to crack that market so much,” she said. “It’s a huge market for us.”
Cape May County’s Canadian consultant, Nicolle DuFour, of Communications A Propos based in Quebec City, helps promote South Jersey among Canadian travel writers.
DuFour has been working with the county for more than 15 years. She said her latest goal has been to expose Quebec readers to destinations outside Wildwood, a favorite for many Canadian families.
Drivers on New Jersey Avenue in Wildwood are greeted by the red maple leaf of the Canadian flag.
DuFour said each year she targets a different facet of Cape May County’s tourism economy: golf courses one year, eco-tourism the next.
“Year by year, I send different journalists for different subjects. A writer from a bicycling magazine usually goes to destinations in Canada, Europe and the United States. Last year they went to Virginia. This year they went to New Jersey, including a circuit in Cape May County,” she said. “Then we looked at nature. You have the Cape May Bird Observatory, which is just incredible.”
DuFour said South Jersey is facing more competition from all-inclusive resorts that are trying to lure Canadians to places such as the Caribbean.
She said Canadian tourists are looking for value, especially in packages that offer savings on lodging, restaurants or attractions.
“A lot of Quebecois have been comparing prices, so I recommend more all-in-one packages for golf, breakfast or Morey’s Pier passes or dolphin-watch cruises,” she said.
South Jersey’s biggest selling point is its geography, DuFour said. Its island resorts are much closer for Canadian drivers than places such as Myrtle Beach, S.C., or Virginia Beach, Va. For vacationers, that means more time at the beach and less time stuck in traffic.
“Our family used to go to Myrtle Beach. It was a hell of a drive. We had to stay over a night. But the water was warm and it was worth it,” she said.
With a little effort, New Jersey can intercept some of those visitors.
Businesses in the Wildwoods routinely offer French translations of their websites, said Tracey Dufault, director of the Greater Wildwood Chamber of Commerce.
“The smart businesses are taking notice and welcoming French Canadians, rolling out the welcome mat,” she said. “The Canadian dollar is strong. The visitors will be staying longer and spending more.”
Dufault said this remains an important market for the Wildwoods.
“Obviously, the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Baltimore, Md., markets are important as well,” she said. “But they’re coming for three or four days. The Canadian visitors are coming for 10 or 12 days.”
Dufault said three multigenerational families stopped at the island’s welcome center after driving nine hours from Quebec.
“They’re here for 10 days. While they’re here, they’re eating at restaurants, shopping, using the beach and Boardwalk. They were going to the water park,” she said.
“I think as long as the Canadian dollar stays strong, we’ll see more Canadian visitors.”
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