Last year was great for tourism in New Jersey, with a 7.4% increase in visitors to 111 million. They spent $45 billion, a substantial economic boost felt throughout the state. This year also seems to be going very well, with noticeably large crowds at the shore and excellent weekend weather.
So when Jeffrey Vasser, the executive director of the state Division of Travel and Tourism, told us recently that Gov. Phil Murphy had set a goal of 150 million visitors a year by 2023, we were surprised and pleased.
Increasing the number of visitors by a third in just four years is ambitious. We’re glad the governor is setting the bar high — there’s much to gain throughout the state from better tourism promotion and Murphy seems to realize that and take it seriously.
South Jersey will be crucial to helping reach Murphy’s goal, Vasser said. He said a large part of the 39 million increase in visitors must come from Atlantic City, where two new casinos and sports betting are already boosting the numbers. State government is doing excellent work toward reinvigorating and reinventing the casino resort after its near bankruptcy, and one key payoff for the state should be the contribution its tourism makes to the state economy and government revenues.
Vasser said there’s a largely untapped opportunity at Newark International Airport, where 15 million international passengers arrive each year and the state does little to make them aware of its attractions. Marketing to them should benefit Atlantic City substantially. A state-commissioned study found 100% of domestic and international visitors had heard of Atlantic City and 76% had visited the resort. Feedback from visitors is positive and often exceeds expectations, Vasser said, so “the more we continue to clean up the city and take an area and make it more exciting, the more that’s going to improve.”
The state, at the urging of representatives in Cape May County, is also creating a campaign promoting its wineries — whose critical success has made vineyards the fastest-growing agricultural sector. Under a bill sponsored by then-Sen. Jeff Van Drew and his replacement, Sen. Bob Andrzejczak, and signed this month by Murphy, the Division of Tourism will use outdoor displays to make visitors aware of wineries and their tasting rooms. The many excellent wineries in Atlantic and Cape May counties are thriving, and increasing their profile will help them find customers in neighboring states.
The one additional element the Murphy administration and legislative leaders should seriously consider is increasing the state tourism budget, which hasn’t budged from $9 million in years. That’s a little more than Pennsylvania spends, but less than a quarter of New York’s annual budget. With the increase in New Jersey tourism last year and what looks like another rise this year, more money for marketing to visitors surely would return greater amounts to the state in business and taxes.
New Jersey tourism has the hot hand and staking it to more robust, diversified campaigns is the surest way to reach 150 million visitors a year.