Tourism Heats Up in N.J.

In this March 23, 2012, photo, Ron Gilleo, left, flies a kite on an Ocean City, N.J. beach. Memorial Day Weekend got off to an anxious start in New Jersey's beaches, with many stakeholders hoping tourism numbers will continue to improve in 2012, as gambling revenues in Atlantic City continue to decline. AP/Wayne Parry

Gambling revenues are down again this year in Atlantic City. Yet, there’s good news for the tourism industry, which saw revenue and job growth in 2011, as well as a spike in tourists at the Jersey Shore—up 14 percent, or 12 million visitors. Can an aggressive plan to revitalize Atlantic City — the state’s summer tourism hub — increase tourism even further in the Garden State?

Early bookings at hotels indicate the answer is yes. Grace Hanlon, New Jersey Executive Director of Travel and Tourism, told NJTV on Tuesday that hotel revenue is up 40 to 50 percent over this time last year.

The most anticipated newcomer is the $2.4 billion Revel, a sprawling casino that is as focused on resort amenities as it is on gambling. Although Revel had a soft-opening eight weeks ago, last weekend it celebrated its grand opening by renting out hotel rooms and hosting four concerts by Beyoncé.

The star performer drew First Lady Michelle Obama and her two daughters to Atlantic City, who also took time to visit the fabled Steel Pier, which came under new ownership last August. Six new rides were unveiled there last Friday in time for Memorial Day weekend. The new rides are part of a $100-million expansion of the pier that is scheduled for completion by 2015.


New Jersey Executive Director of Travel and Tourism Grace Hanlon spoke to Managing Editor Mike Schneider (@SchneiderNJTV) about opening weekend at Revel Casino, and Memorial Day weekend in Atlantic City and water quality and beach replenishment. Video courtesy of NJ Today.

Lawmakers, business owners and employees of the state’s tourism industry have been crossing their fingers all winter in hopes that the state’s lagging tourism sector would start its turnaround come Memorial Day. There’s reason to be hopeful. A report released in March by the Hanson Commission showed that tourism spending had ballooned to $38 billion in 2011, a 7 percent increase from 2010.

“These results give us a solid foundation to build upon as we move forward with a common sense and comprehensive plan to strengthen our tourism promotion activities,” said Gov. Chris Christie. “Along with our efforts to revitalize and invest in Atlantic City, the steps we have taken will have a positive and lasting impact on economic growth for New Jersey over the long run.”

Tourism-related employment makes up 10 percent of all jobs in New Jersey. Although the state added 2,600 jobs in April, unemployment grew .1 percent, bringing the state’s unemployment rate to 9.1 percent. Many of the jobs created since the recession began have been in the tourism and hospitality trades, says Scott Rothbort, a professor of the Stillman School of Business at Seton Hall.

A large chunk of the tourism increase last year, and hopes for growth in 2012, rest on plans of the the state’s Casino Reinvestment Development Authority to transform Atlantic City from a dwindling gambling destination into a family-friendly resort town. The authority has a new $150 million marketing campaign called “Go AC” and passed legislation to form a new state-operated “tourism district” where businesses will receive tax waivers and new zoning exemptions.

Although Atlantic City has had critical financial difficulties since the 1970s, it was particularly hard hit by the recession (gambling revenues fell 36 percent since 2006), and by the growth of table games in Pennsylvania and racinos in New York State.

A major component of Atlantic City’s dwindling gambling revenues is linked to perception of high crime, many residents and lawmakers believe. On May 21, two Canadian tourist were  fatally stabbed in broad daylight, in a touristed area one block off the boardwalk. In an effort to improve safety, the Casino Redevelopment Authority has dedicated $3.5 million to a new surveillance system in tourist areas, and the police department has added 25 special seasonal officers to patrol the boardwalk, beginning in July.




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