The state Senate’s State Government, Wagering, Tourism and Historic Preservation Committee met in Atlantic City last month to look for ways to increase tourism to New Jersey. The hearing was organized by Sen. Chris Brown, R-Atlantic, and committee chairman Sen. Jim Beach, D-Burlington.
There were plenty of good suggestions.
One came from Harvey Kesselman, president of Stockton University, whose new island campus hosted the gathering. He suggested a more focused transportation strategy to increase visits to the region, making better use of Atlantic City International Airport and train service. He noted that a key part of Asbury Park’s revival has been good train service to New York.
Bruce Deifik, owner of Ocean Resort casino, said the underused airport could be used to boost the region’s convention industry, which can operate year-round and help keep hotel rooms filled.
Strengthening the off-season was also recommended by Cape May developer Curtis Bashaw, who said more events are needed outside the summer to give visitors more things to do and keep them spending.
New Jersey government has mismanaged its financial affairs and so has trouble funding these and many other beneficial projects and programs. But in the case of spending to increase tourism, the lack of funding also reduces state revenue and makes the state’s financial problems worse.
Tourists spend $43 billion a year in New Jersey, which generates nearly $5 billion in state and local tax revenue, according to the state Division of Travel and Tourism.
States with robust and successful tourism marketing programs such as Virginia figure that for each dollar spent on promotion, they get back about $7 in tax revenue.
Yet New Jersey sets aside a tiny amount of money for tourism and then diverts much of that to other purposes.
Earlier this year, the division’s acting director at the time said revenue from the state’s 5 percent tax on hotel rooms is split, with $16 million going to arts and culture, $2.4 million for history initiatives and just $9 million for tourism.
That puts the state at a great disadvantage compared to other states. If New Jersey spent all $9 million promoting tourism, that would still be less than half of the average state tourism budget.
But New Jersey can’t even keep its hands off that modest sum for tourism. For more than a decade, a large share of the room-tax revenue has been diverted into the general fund to plug budget holes, according to NJ Spotlight.
A substantial tourism marketing effort was made through the Atlantic City Alliance, but as part of the fix to the city’s nearly bankrupt finances, $60 million it was to use for tourism marketing was redirected to help reduce city debt.
State officials should start by keeping their hands off the room tax money meant for tourism promotion. Then, since they’re always talking about investing in the future, they should increase tourism funding to about $20 million a year, which would at least bring New Jersey up to the average for states.