New Jersey officials are set to cash in on what they believe will be a strong summer tourism season, one which could provide a much-needed economic boost to the financially struggling state.
Their optimistic outlook is based in part on the assumption that the troubled state and national economies will continue to slowly improve, while sky-high gasoline prices continue inch downward — a combination that could spur people to take vacations they may have put off last year.
"We used to come down all the time until the economy sank," said Roger Whittaker, a New York city deli owner who wants to bring his wife, two daughters and their families down to the shore for the first time in five years. "In recent years we've just made the occasional trip to Great Adventure, trips like that. But it seems like things are getting better, so I think it's time we came back."
Jersey Shore realtors are reporting stable to slightly higher interest in rental homes so far this year — a sign analysts say shows people are growing more secure about their financial outlook and are willing to spend time and money on themselves and their families.
"The (tourism) industry tells us vacationers will be staying closer to home this summer, which is wonderful news for New Jersey," said Grace Hanlon, executive director of the state's Division of Travel and Tourism. "Over 91 million people live within a 4-hour drive of New Jersey, so I think we're going to have a great summer, a really strong summer."
Tourism is a $35.5 billion industry in New Jersey, with one in every 10 jobs in the state being connected to tourism. Roughly 67 million people visited New Jersey last year, and Hanlon says the tourism industry contributes about $7.2 billion a year in tax revenue to the state's coffers.
In a bid to draw more visitors, the state and several counties have expanded their outreach to foreign markets in recent years, especially Canada and Asia.
But most tourism officials acknowledge their "bread and butter" market is the New Jersey/New York/Pennsylvania metro region.
"With 30 million people within a 300 miles radius of Cape May County, we have been marketing to the tank-of-gas away vacationer," said Diane Wieland, the county's tourism director. She said the county saw an increase in visitors of more than 5 percent last summer, and they're thinking this summer will be even better.
Wieland said area realtors report an improving rental market this year, with many reporting that rentals were up between 5 to 20 percent during the first quarter of 2011. Bookings continue to remain steady, and prime locations are filling fast, though most homes close to the beach were gobbled up before winter was over.
Bookings were also staying steady in other markets along the shore.
Pam Maguire, an office manager and broker in the Lavallette office of Diane Turton Realtors, said rental requests are about the same as last summer. But while asking prices are similar to those seen in 2010, many people have been able to negotiate lower prices this year.
"We have many people that book ahead, and that has not slowed down," she said. "But the last-minute people who we don't see until we get some really nice weather, they have to be willing to take what we have left."
Despite the many signs pointing to a strong season, there is one important factor — Mother Nature — that is beyond the state's control.
Officials are dreading a repeat of last year, when a prolonged stretch of cool and wet weather kept crowds away from bays and beaches along the coast, and discouraged people from taking day trips.