Tourism was a $38 billion industry in New Jersey in 2011, a 7 percent increase from the year before, and a sign that a cornerstone of the state's economy is regaining its momentum.
Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno released the figures Thursday at a state tourism conference at the Golden Nugget Atlantic City, which is completing a $150 million top-to-bottom renovation.
About 80 million visitors came to New Jersey last year, a 14.6-percent increase from 2010.
"The governor is always talking about the New Jersey comeback," Guadagno said. "But in terms of travel and tourism, it has already arrived. We are already beating the pre-recessionary period."
The state's all-time high for tourism spending came in 2007, just before the recession hit, when it reached $39.5 billion. (At the 2008 tourism conference, state officials listed 2007's tourism spending at $38 million, but subsequently revised the figure upward.)
Spending increases by tourists were highest in the transportation, food and beverages, and retail sectors.
Guadagno said the tourism industry directly or indirectly supported 486,000 jobs, or nearly 10 percent of all employment in New Jersey last year. Including indirect impacts, tourism in New Jersey generated $4.4 billion in state and local taxes, and $4.8 billion in federal taxes last year.
Tourism is New Jersey's third-largest industry, after pharmaceuticals and chemicals.
Employment related to tourism accounted for 312,000 jobs and $9.56 billion in wages last year.
Out-of-state visitors accounted for 64 percent of all tourism revenue last year.
The report calculated that without the money brought in by tourism, each New Jersey household would have needed to pay an additional $1,380 in taxes to maintain government revenues at 2011 levels.
The demand for hotel rooms grew by more than 5 percent last year, and the average room rate statewide was $106 per night.
The state also plans to revamp its tourism promotional efforts, tasking the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority with handling tourism development and expansion along with its existing responsibilities for entertainment and sports.
"Today, our ability to effectively promote New Jersey as the premier tourism destination it is remains held back by a scattered and sprawling patchwork of programs and activities inside and outside of state government," said Gov. Chris Christie. "By consolidating these operations under the umbrella of the NJSEA, we are taking an aggressive and common sense approach that recognizes and prioritizes the important role of tourism promotion in our economy."
Guadagno said the new effort is designed to try to leverage big events like the 2014 Super Bowl — to be held at the Meadowlands in East Rutherford — to generate attention for lesser-known tourism spots like a blueberry festival in Hammonton or an event in Cape May County. She even showed an ambitious if not overly hopeful goal of getting fans of one type of leisure activity interested in others nearby.
"We want to be able to say if you get tickets to Wrestlemania, you can get on a bus and go to the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and see the symphony," she said.