tourism wrapup
The packed Cruisin 1 tour boat passes the Highroller fishing boat in the inlet cross from a packed south end Brigantine beach in Atlantic City, Saturday August 28 2010. Tourism officials say this summer has been good, helped by sunny weather and people more willing to spend. (The Press of Atlantic City / Ben Fogletto)

The weather has been near-perfect this summer and expectations for Labor Day weekend are running high. But tourism business along the New Jersey shore will likely end up good, not great, tourism officials say.

“People have had a very good season. Labor Day will be the icing on the cake,” said Diane Wieland, Cape May County’s tourism director.

Joann DelVescio, president of the New Jersey Travel Industry Association, is a bit more cautious: “It’s a relatively good summer,” she said.

Restaurants were busy, hotel rooms were booked and the beaches were packed with families, she added, but that is to be expected during the peak tourist months.

“This is at least a better summer than last year,” said DelVescio, also director of tourism for Stone Harbor. “People are definitely value conscious this year, but they are spending money.”

But how much remains a question. Tourism spending in southern New Jersey matters because it remains the region’s foremost industry. About $38.8 billion was spent in New Jersey on tourism-related goods and services in 2008, with Atlantic, Cape May and Ocean counties accounting for nearly three-fifths of the state’s haul, according to a report commissioned by the state.

The state benefits, too: About $2.4 billion in tourism spending went toward state tax revenue that same year, the New Jersey Travel Industry Association estimates.

But facing a budget shortfall, the state cut $2 million slated for tourism marketing this past spring and did not fund a study for 2009 detailing how much was spent in each county and statewide. If the state is unable to do so this year, the association would partner with a college to conduct its own tourism survey, DelVescio said.

Better summer

The Cape May County Department of Tourism did conduct a mid-summer survey for 2010, and found that 85 percent of the 94 county businesses polled said the summer has ranged from “moderate” to “strong.” The number was 61 percent last year.

About 13 percent of businesses said the summer did not meet their expectations.

Another report released in late August by the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development noted that while coastal resort businesses and communities expect to post higher revenue this year over 2009, consumers are still budget conscious. But one thing New Jersey’s resorts aren’t lacking is a surrounding population of vacationers.

“Since the Jersey Shore is ‘closer to home’ to literally tens of millions within the Middle-Atlantic Region, the state’s coastal resort communities appear to be weathering this recession’s summer seasons somewhat better than more distant vacation destinations,” the report said.

For Tim and Dale Connelly, being “closer to home” means driving just a few hours from Silver Spring, Md., to the Wildwoods. They’ve been vacationing in New Jersey since 1996, spending a couple hundred dollars per night to stay at one of the colorful, doo-wop-themed motels on the barrier island.

But being a tank of gas away from home also means the couple can ensure they save money in other ways.

“We packed our own food so we don’t have to go out to eat all the time,” Dale Connelly said as she toured a doo-wop and 1950s memorabilia museum in Wildwood on a recent afternoon.

With people still vacationing, the Wildwoods have at least benefited from a jump in parking revenue, which is up 6 percent to $425,000 from March through mid-August over the same period in 2009, said John Siciliano, executive director of the Greater Wildwoods Tourism Improvement and Development Authority.

“It’s probably the strongest year that we’ve had since we started measuring it in 2003,” Siciliano said.

A.C., region in flux

Early economic indicators for Atlantic City — which draws more than 30 million visitors each year — are less encouraging.

There was a 13 percent drop in people using the Atlantic City Expressway’s Pleasantville Plaza leading to and from Atlantic City in the first six months of 2009 versus 2010, according to the South Jersey Transportation Authority. In June, the number was down about 6 percent. The daily bus passenger count also was down 13 percent in June.

That coincided with a drop in casino revenue, which fell 8 percent from January to June 2010 over the prior year, with June revenue down 11 percent and July revenue down 5 percent.

But across the region, hotel and motel occupancy tax revenue numbers provided by the state Division of Taxation do show an uptick in June 2009 to June 2010, said Brian J. Tyrrell, an associate professor of hospitality and tourism management at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.

Atlantic County’s revenue was up more than 11 percent to $447,000, while Cape May County was up 12 percent to more than $1 million. Ocean County had the largest increase, up 21 percent to $374,000 in occupancy tax revenue.

“It appears the recovery is taking hold in the industry,” Tyrrell said. “While we’re not at previous high figures, we’re on our way back.”

Daddy O in the Brant Beach section of Long Beach Township benefited from a jump in early bookings this year, said Craig Weiler, a manager of the hotel and its restaurant. He expects to turn a profit, whereas doing so last year was more difficult, he said.

“Last year we had a lot of last-minute travelers who would book just two to three days in advance,” Weiler said. “I think a lot of people were worried about the economy. But I think people this year want to get out and are staying closer to home.”

George Miller, who owns the 1950s-style Caribbean Motel in Wildwood Crest, said he expects to turn a profit this summer. Eventually, he hopes to capitalize on his motel’s new status as a member of the Historic Hotels of America, a program under the National Trust for Historic Preservation. His is the first motel in the country featuring doo-wop architecture to be accepted into the 220-member group.

To make an impression on guests and breed loyalty, Miller holds cookouts on the weekends at his motel.

“We have a group of guests that have been coming for 26 years for the same two-week period,” Miller said. “One of the fathers showed me a picture of his daughter at the age of six months, and she was there as a mother with her family carrying on the tradition.”

Other businesses, meanwhile, have seen a mixed season.

Todd Lovitz, owner of the Pier 21 clothing and gift shop on the Atlantic City Boardwalk, said people may be spending this summer, but more on food or entertainment rather than nonessential novelties.

Jay and Jessie Obermeyer, owners of Jessie O’ Fishing & Cruising Fleet in Margate, said the party cruise side of their business is up: They’ve done about 30 cruises this summer compared to 15 last year, charging about $950 for a three-hour trip.

“This has been our best summer yet,” Jessie Obermeyer said. “The weather has been spectacular. Just one day was a rainout, but besides that it was phenomenal.”

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