Cumberland tourism pitch turns into senior bus trip

Retired Navy Seaman First Class Owen Garrison, of Bridgeton, leads a tour of the Millville Army Air Field Museum. Wednesday’s tour also included stops at Millville’s New Jersey Motorsports Park, Wheaton Arts & Cultural Center, and Levoy Theatre.

An event that Cumberland County officials hoped would attract media and travel-organization representatives who would then trumpet the county's tourism sites turned into something of a disappointing senior citizen excursion.

Only two of about 20 people who rode a county bus to tourism destinations Wednesday morning were even remotely interested in bringing more people to those sites.

One was a Galloway Township woman who helps organize senior citizen tours. The other represented a Millville age-restricted housing development whose residents might be interested in group trips.

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As for the others, they were primarily senior citizens who hopped on the bus before it left the Cumberland Mall in Vineland shortly after 9 a.m. to get a free tour and lunch. County officials said those senior citizens turned out after apparently reading a media report that mistakenly indicated Wednesday's tour was open to the public.

That was not the crowd county officials wanted. They were specifically seeking representatives of the media and travel organizations outside the Cumberland County area who could spread the word about the county's tourism sites.

Kim Gauntt, administrator for the Cumberland County Tourism Advisory Council, said the county invited a "large number" of those representatives from throughout the Delaware Valley. She said she did not know as of Wednesday morning how many of those representatives would show up for the tour.

Gauntt said she did not consider the poor turnout by those representatives to be an indication that they are not interested in Cumberland County tourism.

When asked what it meant, Gauntt said it "calls out for us to do a better job" of advertising the tour. That could include phone calls to invited media and travel organizations, she said.

Other people were also disappointed.

"I really thought it would bring people from outside of the area," said Lisa Jester, executive director of the Millville Army Air Field Museum. "That was the goal."

Along with the Millville Army Air Field Museum, Wednesday's "familiarization tour" included stops at the New Jersey Motorsports Park, Wheaton Arts & Cultural Center, Levoy Theatre and Fairfield Inn and Suites, all in Millville. The group also stopped at the Southwind Winery in Deerfield Township.

The tour was to originally include a stop at the Landis Theater and Performing Arts Center in Vineland, but that facility may close because of management and financial problems.

If nothing else, Wednesday's tour could attract some new visitors from Atlantic County.

Joan Costello, of the Smithville section of Galloway Township, said she has helped organize tours to some places in Cumberland County, including the Wheaton Arts & Cultural Center. She said she would consider adding the Millville Army Air Field Museum to her senior citizen tours.

"I think a lot of the people had parents who were in World War II," she said. "I think they would be interested."

Gauntt said the county is planning another familiarization tour in the spring. That tour would include tourist destinations along the county's Delaware Bay shore, she said.

Cumberland County officials say growing their tourism economy is important to a county that traditionally ranks near the bottom in New Jersey in terms of economic opportunity. There are some indications that efforts to grow the county's economy are working.

Statistics from the state Division of Travel and Tourism show $318 million in direct tourism sales occurred in Cumberland County last year. That was a more than 7 percent increase from 2011. There was also a larger percentage increase than in Cape May and Ocean counties, while Atlantic County had a decrease in those sales.

Cumberland County still has a long way to go to reach the tourism sales of some other South Jersey counties. Those figures for 2012 include $7.6 billion in Atlantic County, $5.2 billion in Cape May County, and $4.2 billion in Ocean County, the state statistics show.

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