CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE — The region sees more hawks than Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania, purple martins that “gather into living tornadoes” and thousands of snow geese that fly along the Delaware Bay.
Birding in Cape May County is unrivaled, said Peter Dunne, director of the New Jersey Audubon Society’s Cape May Bird Observatory.
It could also be a large growth market for tourism in the region, officials said during a state Assembly Tourism and Arts Committee meeting that was held during Cape May County’s annual tourism conference Tuesday at the freeholders’ meeting room in the Crest Haven Complex.
Dunne, a birder since age 7 and one who keeps extra binoculars and field guides in his car, said birding will see a boom during the next 20 years as baby boomers look for outdoor recreation that is easy on their joints.
“Their knees are shot. They don’t climb mountains anymore,” Dunne said. “They want to go outdoors.”
With economic slumps, unemployment and uneasiness about spending money, vacationers are changing their patterns, tourism officials said.
Fifty seven percent of people responding to a January e-mail survey said they planned to vacation in Cape May County this year, a 21 percent decrease from last year. More people — 34 percent — were undecided.
Tourism is Cape May County’s number one industry, generating $5 billion a year in accommodations, food, entertainment, retail and transportation, according to a 2008 state-commissioned study.
Each spring, Cape May County hosts a tourism conference, offering statistics and survey results showing the flavor of tourism and identifying trends.
As budgets get tighter across the country, the drive to generate tourism is becoming more competitive. States such as California, Michigan and Maryland have taken up television advertising on local stations.
And Philadelphia has billboards on the Wildwood Boardwalk marketing Philadelphia to beachgoers.
“The competition for tourism dollars is fierce,” said Cape May County Freeholder Leonard Desiderio, who oversees tourism for the county and is also Sea Isle City’s mayor.
The need to focus on the area’s strengths — from its beaches to wildlife — is apparent, officials said.
Home to 420 species of birds, the county is a place where birders continually set records on birds spotted in a 24-hour period under particular conditions, Dunne said.
“This is the planet’s greatest eco-tourism destination. That is not hyperbole,” he said.
This year the theme has been joining marketing efforts with neighboring counties and the state to stretch advertising dollars.
Cumberland County Freeholder Director Louis Magazzu said Millville’s New Jersey Motorsports Park could be used to benefit both counties. Cape May County has the extensive number of hotel rooms that Cumberland County lacks, he said. The neighboring counties can attract tourists together, he said.
“Let’s look at how we can jointly market” in 2011 and beyond, he said.
The keynote speaker Tuesday was Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, who pledged the state will maintain $9 million in tourism funding this year through the occupancy tax.
Guadagno called business owners in the tourism industry “the lifeblood of small business in New Jersey.”
“You are economic development in New Jersey,” she said. “You are economic recovery in New Jersey.”
In publicizing the state’s tourism, Guadagno said even the controversial MTV reality show “Jersey Shore” can have a place.
Guadagno said her son, who works at a pizza place in Monmouth County, recently spotted “Snooki,” one of the stars of the show.
“Snooki’s not all that bad if it brings people here, if it shows off our beaches,” she said.
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