Surging gasoline prices forced many New Jerseyans to rethink their vacation plans last summer, and stay closer to home.
This year, a tank of gas is far cheaper. But the slumping economy and soaring unemployment rate seems to be having the same affect as expensive fuel, with New Jerseyans continuing to opt for a family- and wallet-friendly vacation at the Jersey Shore.
Tourism officials and real estate agents say the troubling times are a boon for the Garden State's tourism industry, noting that about 30 million people live within 300 miles of the shore area.
“Many people won't be on cruises or taking cross-country trips this year -- they're looking for places they can go on a tank of gas,'' said Diane Wieland, tourism director for Cape May County.
Real estate agents say prices for many summer rentals remain around the same levels as last year, and they're confident that interest will grow as summer draws closer and the season gets going. But they have noticed that many visitors who in the past would stay for a week or longer are now considering shorter trips -- three or four days -- as they deal with financial uncertainty.
“It's still early in the season, but we were right on target at the end of January with leases, and we were inundated with calls in February, so we're looking good at this time,'' said Jeff Gamble, president of the Ocean County Board of Real Estate Agents. “We feel confident that we're going to be ahead come April.''
But real estate agents and others concede that how the season ultimately turns out -- and whether would-be renters and travelers actually make the trek to the Shore -- will rest mostly on the state of the economy.
David Weinstein, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, says many of their members are not booking trips as far out as they did in the past and are more likely to leave only a deposit, rather that paying in full for a trip up front.
“This tells us that they're waiting for good deals and that they're trying to get as close to the departure date as possible, to alleviate any of the uncertainty that might exist if you book six months to a year out,'' he said. “Many travelers just don't know these days what their job or economic situation could be a half-year from now.''
Aware that finances are playing a key role in vacation decision making, businesses and tourism officials have increased advertising to promote the Shore as a family friendly place that's full of activities -- many of them free -- including beach concerts, big band dances, museums, library events, children's' shows, arts and crafts and boat parades.
“We're definitely spreading the word about the many activities people can do in our area,'' said Michele Gillian, executive director of the Ocean City Chamber of Commerce. “People are looking for things that will interest their family, things they can do in small or big groups, that won't cost them much to enjoy.''