Compared to the grandeur of the Atlantic Ocean, the bustle of boardwalks and the glitz of the casino industry, small historic sites, museums and nature centers can have a tough time standing out. So it would be easy to miss how important nonprofit attractions are to the tourism economy of our corner of New Jersey.

But the folks who know tourism haven't missed it. Cape May County Tourism Director Diane Wieland recently told Press staff writer Michael Miller that nonprofit sites are major contributors to the county's $5 billion tourism industry because they expand the diversity of attractions and give people another compelling reason to return to the area.

Places such as Leaming's Run Gardens, Historic Cold Spring Village, the Absecon, Hereford Inlet and Cape May lighthouses, the Cape May Bird Observatory, Lucy the Elephant and Tuckerton Seaport also offer programs that help extend the tourism season.

With limited budgets and often makeshift marketing, these attractions don't always get the attention they deserve - except on rainy summer days. Then tourists looking for something to do might take a drive and discover the hangar full of vintage planes at the Naval Air Station Wildwood Aviation Museum at the Cape May County Airport or the family friendly exhibits at the Atlantic City Aquarium.

But it would be a shame - and a mistake - to think of these sites merely as a backup plan. Surveys by the Lloyd D. Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality and Tourism at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey have found that about half of adults who travel in the Northeast look for cultural sites - places that are entertaining and instructive - when they plan trips.

That's part of the reason you hear so much about the need for Atlantic City to develop non-casino attractions. And yes, the area could use more such attractions - but residents should also appreciate what we already have.

In fact, this is the perfect time of year for locals to discover some of these sites. If you go, you will find that they often run on passion. While many cultural sites have some paid staff, the driving forces behind them are usually volunteers who do whatever they can, from giving tours to writing grant applications, for the love of a lighthouse or a museum.

More than their contribution to tourism, sites such as the Wetlands Institute in Middle Township make a valuable contribution to our sense of place. They help define not just what southern New Jersey has to offer, but what it is.