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Jeffrey Vasser, New Jersey’s director of travel and tourism, said at the 2019 Cape May County Tourism Conference on Friday that the state’s focus this summer will be bringing visitors to New Jersey attractions beyond the beaches.

CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE — Now a $6.6 billion industry, tourism in Cape May County likely will continue to grow at a slow, steady pace, according to Diane Wieland, the director of the county tourism department.

“I’m always happy to report any growth,” Wieland said at the Cape May County Tourism Conference for 2019, held in the Cape May County administration building Friday morning. “This year we were up 3.8%. Last year we were up 1.4. We’ll take it.”

That growth has been underway for years, she reported to business people and tourism leaders at the conference, which also included comments from Assemblyman Bruce Land and from Jeffrey Vasser, New Jersey’s director of travel and tourism.

Freeholder E. Marie Hayes opened the event and introduced the speakers, including Melissa Melhorn of Trip Advisor, who presented the travel website’s Traveler’s Choice Awards to two Cape May County businesses, the Blue Fish Inn and The Icona, both in Cape May.

Vasser ran through some of the numbers for 2018, which he said were just released the previous week.

They showed tourism to be the seventh largest employer in the state, and by far the largest area of employment for Cape May County, with 42.6% of the employees working in the field. When the indirect impact is taken into account, that number jumps to close to 60%.

Visitors spent $44.7 billion in the state last year, with more than 33,000 jobs depending on tourism statewide. Vasser said his office will continue to push for growth. While beach resorts are the strongest driver in the state’s tourism industry, Vasser said his office plans to focus on other attractions, especially during the summer when beaches are often already at capacity.

“Everybody knows our iconic Jersey Shore, but they’re not familiar with all of the other things that we have to offer,” Vasser said.

Wieland focused on other attractions in the county, citing beverage tourism bringing people to the increasing number of wineries and breweries in the county.

“We know that people are coming to the beach, but we’re giving them a compelling reason to come back,” Wieland said.

With so much of the county economy based on tourism, Cape May County continues to work on extending their season. Locals often say the barrier island towns in Cape May County once all but closed after Labor Day, but special events and holiday specials have helped increase the number of visitors throughout the year.

More than 85% of visitors say they come to the county in the summer, data show, with 47% visiting in the fall. Just over a quarter say they visit in the spring, with 18.4% saying they visit in the winter.

Cape May County’s multibillion-dollar tourism industry is one of the largest in the state, but it’s not the largest. That goes to Atlantic County, with $7.4 billion spent by visitors in 2018. Along with Ocean County, at $4.8 billion in reported spending last year, the shore counties brought in the most tourism dollars by far.

Wieland said Cape May County is happy to come in second, saying a significant portion of Cape May County visitors take the short drive to Atlantic City for gaming, entertainment and dining. She had those attending offer a round of applause to Atlantic City.

Some at the conference expressed concern over New Jersey’s decision to increase the minimum wage early this year. The increase is set to be phased until it reaches $15 an hour by 2024, up from $8.85.

Vasser does not expect it to hurt the shore economy, he said in answer to a question from the audience.

“There’s going to be carve-outs for seasonal businesses,” Vasser said. “I think it will be absorbed. People still want to come here.”

During his comments, Land said he opposed the increase, saying it would not be good for his district. He indicated he has paid a political price in Trenton.

“That kind of hurt me up there because I had a few things pending. They weren’t really happy with the fact that I voted no,” Land said. “They really wanted that to go up.”

Wieland had a positive outlook for this summer. The weather will be a determining factor, as always. Mother’s Day weekend was kind of a washout, she said, but Palm Sunday and Easter were great, as was President’s Day weekend.

“We’re getting good reports from our realtors as far as early reservations and for rentals. So we’re looking at continuing that steady growth, based on growth in our shoulder seasons,” she said.

A summer of sunny, 80-degree days could mean a blockbuster summer, she added, but she said the focus should stay on expanding the tourism season.

Vasser was also hopeful.

“2019 should be great,” Vasser said, citing plans for new hotels along the New Jersey shore.

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