Atlantic County may have an unemployment rate about one-third higher than the national average and a foreclosure rate more than three times the national rate, but tourism data show improvement in the region.
For the first time in five years, tourism sales in Atlantic County grew.
“Although we feel like we’ve never recovered from the recession down here, most of the people that come here are coming from areas that are doing much, much better than we are,” said Richard Perniciaro, director of the Center for Regional and Business Research at Atlantic Cape Community College.
Low gas prices, good weather and — for the first time in 10 years — a 1.4 percent increase in casino revenue led to a bump in New Jersey tourism in 2016, according to the latest data released by the state Thursday.
“As long as the places our visitors come from are doing well, our tourism industry will do well,” Perniciaro said.
With about 40 miles of coastline and about 15 resort towns, Cape May and Atlantic counties generate the most tourism dollars.
In Cape May County, tourism sales grew 5 percent in 2016. Atlantic County’s rose 2.5 percent.
The two counties account for more than 31 percent of the state’s $41.9 billion in direct tourism sales in 2016.
Over the past four years — and with the closing of four casinos in 2014 — tourism employment in Atlantic County was on a steady decline.
However, despite the closing of Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort in October, Atlantic County tourism-related jobs saw growth at 0.3 percent.
Tourism’s impact on the job force is palpable, especially in Atlantic and Cape May counties, where the industry accounts directly for 29 percent and 44 percent of total employment, respectively.
“It gives a lot of jobs to the area, and you know with tourism being the No. 1 industry (in the region), we are the economic stimulus for these families,” said Michele Gillian, executive director of the Ocean City Chamber of Commerce. “It’s a lifeline. It’s a circle.”
Gillian said the importance of the industry to the region can be measured in every business.
“You name it, it affects it at the top of the scale to the bottom of the scale,” she said. “A good summer helps for a good year all around.”
Gillian said Ocean City benefited from winning awards for its beaches last year and the lack of major foul weather. It also focused on promoting bay activities and ecotourism, she said.
Lori Pepenella, CEO of the Southern Ocean County Chamber of Commerce, said chambers throughout the state are trying to make the most out of so-called “shoulder seasons” — the few weeks before Memorial Day and after Labor Day when the weather is still favorable.
“We’ve added film festivals and wine festivals, different things to just constantly engage,” Pepenella said.
The report said low gas prices contributed to the uptick in travel to tourist destinations within the state. AAA reports an average gas price of $2.289 this month, up from $1.608 one year ago. This is attributable to the gas-tax increase that went into effect in November.
Perniciaro said due to the proximity of the visitors who come to the region, that increase shouldn’t affect tourism.
However, he said, the lack of new capacity in the hospitality industry will not allow tourism much growth.
“We have not built any new capacity for that industry, so in the middle of July, everything is 100 percent booked, and that sort of constrains us,” Perniciaro said, adding the area doesn’t necessarily need more casinos to open.
“You’ve got to remember, we’re doing with seven buildings what we did with 12 before. If you keep opening casinos back up, you’re just spreading that money around,” he said.